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Obama’s silence on Gaza frustrates Arabs

BEIRUT – President-elect Barack Obama’s silence on the eight-day-old offensive in Gaza is drawing criticism among Arabs who have grown skeptical about hopes that his administration will break with the Mideast policies of the Bush era.

Obama, who is moving to Washington this weekend, was on vacation in Hawaii when the crisis erupted and has made no statements, either about Israel’s assault on Gaza or Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel. His aides say that he does not wish to address foreign policy issues in any way that could send “confusing signals” about U.S. policy as long as President George W. Bush is in office.

“The president-elect is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza. There is one president at a time, and we intend to respect that,” Brooke Anderson, chief national security spokeswoman for the Obama transition team, said Saturday.

Arab commentators maintain, however, that Obama did comment on foreign affairs when he issued a statement condemning the terrorist attacks in Mumbai and that he has given several news conferences outlining his economic proposals. They suggest that his refusal to speak out on Gaza – where at least 460 Palestinians have died, compared with four Israeli deaths from the rockets – implies indifference to the plight of Palestinians or even complicity with Israel.

The satellite TV network Al-Jazeera contrasted footage of Obama wearing shorts and playing golf in Hawaii with scenes of the carnage in Gaza, as a way of highlighting what it called “the deafening silence from the Obama team.”

“People recall his campaign slogan of change and hoped that it would apply to the Palestinian situation,” said Jordanian analyst Labib Kamhawi, speaking from Amman, Jordan. “So they look at his silence as a negative sign. They think he is condoning what happened in Gaza because he’s not expressing any opinion.”

“If he does not want to talk politics yet, at least he could address the humanitarian suffering taking place,” Kamhawi added. “He did not even send one signal to the people of this region that he is not happy with what is happening.”

It is not only the Arab world that has noticed the president-elect’s silence: At a gathering of celebrities to condemn Israel’s assault in London on Friday, speakers called on Obama to speak out.

Such calls underscore the challenge confronting a president-elect who has promised to deliver change and who may now face unrealistically high expectations as to how far that change will go.

Nowhere is that challenge greater than in the Muslim world, where the policies of the Bush administration have pushed opinions of America to an all-time low.

Obama has said it is one of his priorities to restore America’s image among Muslims. But Arabs enthusiastic about the departure of Bush say they have already been disappointed by some of Obama’s statements on Israel, and by his appointments of key aides whom they identify with pro-Israeli policies, such as his incoming chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and nominee for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.