Page last updated at 00:19 GMT, Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Bowen diary: Obama's challenge

BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen is writing a diary of the conflict between Hamas and Israel.

A woman rides past Palestinian trucks waiting on the border to load food in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, 20 January 2009
Lorries were queuing to load food on Tuesday at the Rafah crossing

20 January

I am still stuck in Egypt trying to get into Gaza. For reasons they have chosen not to share the Egyptians have closed the border to journalists.

On their side of the Gaza border, the Israelis are only letting those in who are on a special list, of which I am not a part.

The BBC is in great shape in the Gaza Strip, with plenty of people doing great work. But it is frustrating for me. Tomorrow we'll try again.

So I have been sitting in my hotel room in the Egyptian seaside town of El Arish, close to the border, watching Barack Obama becoming US president.

How must it have felt to walk out on the steps of the US Capitol on that cold and sunny morning to take on those responsibilities and to see all those people lined up with so much hope?

Inspiring, I hope, for the new president, as he has much to do and will need courage to do it well.

The Middle East is going to have to be a big priority. Millions of people in this part of the world believe that George Bush has been a disaster.

Hope for the future

I have not met many in the Arab world in the last eight years - outside the palaces of leaders and the villas and offices of western educated elites - who do not believe that the US and its allies are out to get them.

If Barack Obama is to become the kind of president he says he wants to be... then he cannot hide from the Middle East

But as I was driving back from the border tonight to my hotel I passed cafes where men gather to smoke, to talk and drink tea, where the televisions were not tuned to the football, as they were earlier in the day, but to the inauguration of President Obama.

It has only been a few days since the cafe televisions were constantly on the Arabic language news channels and their coverage of the bombing of Gaza. A breath of soccer and they are back to the affairs of the world.

That is because they want to have some hope for the future. If you live in the Middle East, whatever you think about the United States, you know it is going to have a very big impact on your life.

They heard him talk tough about the threats the US faces, and more softly that he would offer the Muslim world a new way forward based on mutual respect.

No-one will be too excited by that. But they might be intrigued about the way he will try to make the thought action.

I think I have already mentioned in this diary that even the Hamas political leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, thought that Barack Obama would be better for Palestinians (though only because he wasn't George Bush.)

The Iranians are taking a great interest in the new president. So is everyone else.

Weighing priorities

Until the Gaza war, today's inauguration looked to be the biggest Middle Eastern news event of January.

Everything seemed to be on hold, as people waited to see what Obama would do. And even Israel's offensive was determined by the inauguration. It was shaped to fit the time that was left before the old president went home to Texas and the new president went to work.

So what are the big challenges?

Until this war I thought that Iraq and Iran would be the first priorities for President Obama. He has promised to pull troops out of Iraq, and besides, it looks as if he believes he wants to send more of them to Afghanistan.

This year Iranian scientists are expected to produce enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear device. If they want one. The Iranians say they don't. Most of their neighbours, and the members of the UN Security Council, among others, think that they do.

No doubt President Obama will move fast to address the problem, perhaps with the speedy appointment of an envoy with the power to speak to Iran. He seems determined to reverse the Bush policy of only talking to people the US liked.

At the same time he has had a reminder of the power of the Arab-Israeli conflict to spread dismay, disorder and death.

Surely he must now reject the advice of those who told him that he shouldn't get involved because it was impossible to do anything to end the conflict.

The pessimists might be correct. Or at least less wrong than optimists, who are hard to find around here.

But if Barack Obama is to become the kind of president he says he wants to be, who faces the challenges of his nation and the world, then he cannot hide from the Middle East.

The last three weeks have been a taste of life in the abyss for the people of Gaza.

One hundred years of conflict between Arabs and Jews has produced deep wounds that cannot be left to fester any longer, because the fever they produce can infect all of us.

Previous diary entries by Jeremy Bowen:

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