Just a few days after his appointment, Middle East envoy George Mitchell is in the Mideast, trying to build a durable cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
Twenty-two days of conflict have left some 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. Mitchell's visit comes as Saudi Arabia — one of Washington's most powerful Arab allies — is warning that America's standing in the Mideast and the prospects for peace are in critical condition.
President Obama's willingness to engage early in Mideast peacemaking has been welcomed around the world. But among America's Arab allies in the region, concern is growing that Washington won't move forcefully enough to repair what they see as the serious damage done by the Israeli military operation in Gaza.
Allies Feel Sense Of Betrayal
Writing in the Financial Times on Jan. 23, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former ambassador to the U.S. and Britain and longtime Saudi intelligence chief, used startlingly strong terms to describe the situation Mitchell is entering.
Prince Turki wrote of the Bush administration's "sickening legacy in the region" and accused it of "contributing to the slaughter of innocents" through its "arrogant attitude about the butchery in Gaza."
He added that if Washington wants to keep playing a leadership role in the Mideast and maintain ties with Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, it must "drastically revise [America's] policies" regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mideast analysts say such warnings reflect the sense of betrayal and insecurity felt by Arab regimes that aligned with the U.S. despite its staunch support of Israel.
Dia Rashwan at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies says there have been "three earthquakes" in the past five years: the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and Israel's wars in 2006 against Hezbollah in Lebanon and against Hamas in Gaza.
"We are in the face of a very dangerous situation inside the Arab world. The regimes now, I think they are out of validity. They cannot defend the United States policies and they cannot defend themselves," Rashwan says.
Hostility Toward Israel Grows
In his warning to the Obama administration, Prince Turki revealed that during Israel's ground offensive in Gaza, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had written to Saudi King Abdullah urging him to lead a jihad, or Muslim holy war, against Israel.
The prince acknowledged that such an event would lead to unprecedented chaos and bloodshed in the region, but he warned that the kingdom would not be able to resist such calls for long without dramatic changes in U.S. policy.
Analyst Issandr el Amrani with the International Crisis Group says it's possible this rising hostility to Israel is just a flare of anger at the suffering of Palestinians but that it could also reflect a crucial shift in Arab opinion — away from negotiating with the Jewish state and back to fighting against it.
"So, we are seeing an intensification of the 'cold war,' if you want, between this new resistance front — Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah — and those Arab states that are concerned not only about the rise of Iran but also concerned about the way politics in the region is changing," Amrani says.
He also says the so-called moderate Arab states — led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia — are threatened by the blossoming support among their citizenry for Hezbollah and Hamas, groups that reject the past three decades of slow, stumbling progress toward recognizing Israel's right to exist and trying to negotiate a Palestinian state alongside it.
Diplomacy Vs. Resistance
By 2002, when the Saudis floated a comprehensive peace initiative promising normal ties between all Arab states and Israel if it withdrew to its 1967 borders, momentum seemed to be on the side of diplomacy.
But since then, analysts say, all Arabs have seen is powerful states resorting to violence — from the U.S. in Iraq to Israel in Lebanon and Gaza. Amrani says that while the Bush administration may have intended to isolate Iran and Syria, a case could be made that what it achieved within the region was the isolation of its own Arab allies.
"There is this sentiment that countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which have been pushing since 2002 this Arab peace initiative that's been ignored so far by the Israelis, have failed — that the diplomatic initiatives have failed and they're not coming up with new ideas, whereas this resistance front at least is doing something," Amrani says.
That is the atmosphere into which Obama Mideast envoy Mitchell is stepping as he seeks to convince Israelis and Arabs that they can best defend both their people and their political interests by negotiating, not fighting.