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What Role Does Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Play In Mending U.S.-Muslim Ties?

Even in Malaysia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can arouse passions among Muslims.
Even in Malaysia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can arouse passions among Muslims.
As U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his much-awaited speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt, many were listening keenly to hear his thoughts on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There is no questioning the importance a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can play in mending the United States' strained ties with the Muslim world as a whole, says Alvaro de Soto, a former Peruvian diplomat and former UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.

And at the heart of that conflict, he says, is Jerusalem.

As de Soto explains, Muslims revere the historic city as the third-holiest after Mecca and Medina because it marks the site of Prophet Muhammad's ascendance to heaven and was the first "Qibla," the direction Muslims should face during daily prayers ("salah").

De Soto believes there is no separating the Middle East conflict from "questions related to how the West and Islam connect."

"The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has an extraordinary power to concentrate in the minds of Muslims worldwide the sense that the West is somehow not comprehending, and acting only with force and in a biased way against Arabs," De Soto says. "Now this is a question of perception, true or not." (Click here for full interview.)

As can be expected on such a polarizing issue, not all experts agree with de Soto's assessment, however. Among them is James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, a policy research and advocacy organization of the Arab-American community.

Zogby says that although the Palestinian issue is of key importance to Muslims in Arab countries, no single issue can be seen as central to the United States' complex relationship with the so-called Islamic world as a whole.

"It's difficult to speak of a Muslim world, just as it's difficult to speak of a Christian world. There certainly is a common language [in parts of the Muslim world] and a common faith, but very distinct issues that affect each part of the world populated by the 1 billion Muslims," Zogby says. "So I think that it's difficult to single out one issue that, for example, would be of the highest importance to Arabs and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and Indonesians, etc."

Not All Muslims Arabs

Today only one in six Muslims worldwide is Arab -- broadly defined as someone who speaks Arabic as a first language. From Indonesia to Morocco, the world's more than 50 states with majority-Muslim populations can differ significantly in terms of political systems, languages spoken, and culture.

Zogby says U.S. President Obama, by addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict during his June 4 speech in the Egyptian capital, can facilitate Washington's effort to gain popular support among the populations of its Arab allies. However, he adds, mention of the issue will do little to assuage concerns of Muslims living in areas such as Chechnya, Central Asia, and the Philippines.

"[Just] because the West just discovered Arabs and Islam and has conflated the two, I am not going to make the same mistake and conflate with them. There is a distinction between the priority concerns that exist in different parts of the Muslim world and the priority issues that exist in specific parts of the Arab world," Zogby says.

"And so, yes, it is a priority and America should have recognized that, in order to normalize and to make more healthy its relation with Arab countries, the question of Palestine needs to be dealt with with justice. But that is not the same as the sloppier way of saying it."

However, Hady Amr, the director of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center in Qatar and an expert on U.S. relations with the Islamic world, notes that a recent Brookings poll in six Arab countries shows that the issue tops the list of primary public concerns.

"Currently 38 percent of Arabs rank the Palestinian issue as their single-most-important issue. And 76 percent of Arabs rank it as one of their top three most-important issues again, including their own education, health care, and tax policies," Amr says.

"So clearly in the Arab world there is tremendous amount of passion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Politicized Palestine

Many experts see Muslim and, in particular, Arab-Muslim regimes politicizing the Israeli-Palestinian issue for their own domestic political purposes. In recent decades, many extremist Islamic organizations have also placed the issue at the core of their existence.

"Unfortunately, everybody uses the Palestinian issue to justify their own claims," says Berlin-based independent Palestinian analyst Akram Baker.

"Whether they are autocratic Arab regimes -- which use the case of Palestine to repress their own people and to deny them political freedoms and social freedoms -- or by the Islamist terrorists who wrap themselves in the dress of Palestine to justify their own repression and violence against whoever it may be," Baker adds. "And most victims of radical Islamist terrorists are Muslims."

Baker acknowledges, however, that the four-decade-old Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories is a pivotal issue, and suggests that everlasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can have positive repercussions across the Muslim world.

As for Brookings expert Amr, he would like to see President Obama simultaneously address a broad array of conflicts in the Muslim world during his Cairo speech.

Amr offers the U.S. leader this advice on the Muslim world: "Please keep up what you are doing. You are doing a good job. Please don't be deterred, don't be distracted. Please continue to engage the Muslim world.

"Please focus on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Focus on U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that leaves Iraq healthy, free, safe, and prosperous. Focus on solving the problems in Afghanistan. And also focus on helping Pakistan grapple with its problems."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.