Obama addresses Arab concerns before Camp David summit

By Anwar Iqbal | 5/14/2015

WASHINGTON: On the eve of an Arab summit he is hosting at Camp David, US President Barack Obama assured the Arab world that he too saw Iran as a troublemaker and was also committed to creating a separate state for the Palestinians.

`Iran clearly engages in dangerous and destabilising behaviour in different countries across the region. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism`, he told the London-based Asharq al-Awsat in his first-even interview to an Arabic language newspaper.

`Palestinians deserve an end to the occupation and the daily indignities that come with it`, said Mr Obama as Arab leaders started gathering in Washington for a summit meeting, which begins on Thursday at the Camp David presidential resort near Washington.

`I will never give up on the hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians,` he said.

Mr Obama also said in the interview that Gulf countries were right to be concerned about Iran as it was a `state sponsor of terrorism`.

He also addressed another issue often highlighted in Arab capitals, the alleged Iranian effort to stir troubles in their backyard.

`Iran ... helps prop up the Assad regime in Syria. It supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It aids the Houthi rebels in Yemen. So countries in the region are right to be deeply concerned about Iran`s activities,` said Mr Obama. Iran was also supporting `violent proxies inside the borders of other nations`, said Mr Obama, while endorsing another Arab complaint.

He then moved to a subject that policy makers in Washington feel is close to Arab hearts and minds: the Palestinian issue. Mr Obama said he was committed to the creation of a separate Palestinian state.

`That`s why we`ve worked so hard over the years for a two-state solution and to develop innovative ways to address Israel`s security and Palestinian sovereignty needs.

Obama`s comments came prior to a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in which he is due to sit with key leaders of six Arab nations from the Middle East.

The summit, however, is not what President Obama had hoped it to be when he began inviting Arab leaders to the meeting last month after signing an agreement for a framework nuclear deal with Iran. The proposed deal, which has to be finalised before June 30, alarmed Arab leaders, particularly Saudi Arabia and other GCC states. They feared that it would allow Iran to increase its influence in the Middle East.

When President Obama invited them to the summit, they sought certain assurances from Washington about limiting the Iranian influence and until last week it seemed that they had received what they were seeking.

But by Monday, top Arab leaders started opting out of the summit.

Just last week Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz told US Secretary of State John Kerry that he was looking forward to this meeting. So did other Gulf leaders.

But now only two of the six GCC states Kuwait and Qatar are sending their top leaders.

Apparently, Washington accepted their explanation that their preoccupation with Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is leading a war against Houthi rebels, forced the top leaders to skip the White House summit. But the US media, and think-tank experts, see it as a snub.

`Regardless of the reason for King Salman`s absence, the optics are terrible for the US,` observed the influential Wall Street Journal.

`Once again, a Middle East leader is publicly saying no to a US president on something important.

The newspaper pointed out that in the recent past, Egypt`s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Israel`s Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinian Authority`s Mahmoud Abbas, and Syria`s Bashar al-Assad had also rebuffed President Obama.

In his interview to Asharq al-Awsat, President Obama said the main priorities for the Camp David summit were to `further strengthen our close partnerships, including our security cooperation, and to discuss how we can meet common challenges together` He said that there should be no doubt about the US commitment to the security of the region and to its GCC partners. Mr Obama said that while a nuclear with the US and five other world powers would not change Iran`s internal dynamics, it could encourage moderate elements of the Iranian society.

Published in Dawn