Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Barack Obama's election as U.S. president cheered many Arabs and Iranians driven to anger or despair by George W. Bush's policies over the past eight years.
But Obama's choice of Rahm Emanuel, a combative, pro-Israeli political operator, as his White House chief of staff splashed cold water on some who hoped the next U.S. leader would be more even-handed and sensitive in grappling with the Middle East.
"For millions of Arabs who expressed jubilance at the monumental victory of Obama, (Emanuel's) appointment has put a damper on a short-lived fiesta," wrote Jordan-based commentator Osama al-Sharif in Saudi Arabia's Arab News on Wednesday.
In another common view, Morocco's leading Arabic-language newspaper al Massa said Emanuel's powerful new job indicated the "lengthy arm of Israeli clout inside the Obama administration."
Iran's hardline English-language Kayhan International also homed in on Emanuel, describing the Illinois Congressman as a "Zionist with deep-seated family ties to Israel."
It said that while Obama had said he favored dialogue, he had also advocated tougher sanctions over Iran's nuclear program and, like Bush, had not ruled out military action.
"The challenge for Obama is to show the world whether he is really ready to offer Tehran a grand bargain rather than a big bang," the Iranian newspaper declared on Sunday.
Emanuel has a record of hawkish pro-Israeli positions, combined with support for U.S.-led peacemaking -- he helped arrange the White House lawn signing of the 1993 Oslo accords -- but not all Israelis are delighted with his appointment.
"The guy is very close to the left and I'm more afraid of him than Obama," said Shmuel Sandler, an Israeli political scientist at Bar Ilan University, referring to the possibility of U.S. pressure on Israel to make concessions to Palestinians.
But Maariv newspaper last week described Emanuel as "our man in the White House" in an article that quoted his father as saying his son would obviously influence Obama to be pro-Israel.
"What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors of the White House," Benjamin Emanuel told the Israeli daily.
The remarks generated outrage among Arabs and others, but Shibley Telhami, a political science professor at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Saban Centre of the Brookings Institution, said the reaction was beside the point.
"Judge the guy by what he is and how he has behaved, not by his background, or his father or his history," Telhami told Reuters in Washington. "I am an Arab American. I don't want to be judged by my ethnicity, but by what I do and say."
Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation, said Emanuel's posting had been "wildly exaggerated in terms of its Middle East significance."
His prime loyalty was to Obama, Levy said, and there was no suggestion that he had been an obstacle on Middle East issues when he served as an aide to former President Bill Clinton.
Obama's picks for the State Department and National Security Council would be a better guide to his plans for the region.
Former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher also said the U.S. president would make the decisions, not his aides.
"We hope that President Obama, who belongs to a part of the American people that was oppressed and deprived of its rights ... will not side with the usurper against the usurped," he said, alluding to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The leader of Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah group warned against expecting any major U.S. policy shift from Obama.
"Our Arab world, our Third World and our African world can empathize with Obama because of his past or the color of his skin, but politics and interests are a different story," Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised address on Tuesday.
"I don't want to anticipate events, but logic dictates that we not bet on changes in injustice, or believe that he will be more lenient or less unfair than his predecessors," he added.
Obama's middle name of Hussein, a Muslim religious hero, has helped make him an intriguing figure in the Middle East -- where Emanuel's second name, Israel, has also drawn attention.
"Obama has already made history just by getting elected in spite of his middle name and the color of his skin," said Lebanon's English-language Daily Star in an editorial.
"If he really wants to make a mark, he will make the search for a fair peace in the Middle East a hallmark of his presidency. If he does that, we should help him," it said.
(Editing by Dominic Evans)
6 months ago