BEIRUT — President-elect Barack Obama's silence on the weeklong conflict 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 bombing of 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 Bush is in office.
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 implies indifference to the plight of Palestinians or even complicity with Israel's bombing campaign.
The satellite TV network al Jazeera contrasted footage of Obama wearing shorts and playing golf in Hawaii with scenes of the carnage in Gaza, by 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."
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.
"His current silence falls into the pattern of disappointment so far," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "Most people understand that the president-elect can't take issue with what the current president is saying, but it certainly is a disappointment."
Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, called Obama's silence "strange" and said it suggested he was fearful of offending Israel, just as past U.S. presidents have been.