President Obama’s Middle East Speech Gives Arabs, As Well As Israelis, Little To Chew On

No matter what President Obama would say today in a widely anticipated speech on the Middle East had to be tempered with certain expectation-lowering realities. Chief among them is that the pro-democracy fever sweeping the Arab world has much to do with Al-Jazeera and social media and little to do with Obama or Bush foreign policies, and that Israel, determined to be on the wrong side of history, will continue to be an obstacle to regional stability.

The speech came in the wake of a flurry of diplomatic activity, including largely symbolic sanctions against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which has brutally cracked down on protesters, and a $2 billion economic aid package for Egypt, which is feeling its way toward a more democratic society in the wake of President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February.

If that were not enough, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington tomorrow with a plan to restart the peace process that offers a single possible concession — a willingness to negotiate away some of the West Bank territory it illegally occupies. Meanwhile, an Israeli government committee approved the construction of more than 1,500 new settler homes in East Jerusalem just hours before Obama’s address.

That address was ostensibly to Americans as he greases the foreign policy skids for his re-election campaign, it was Muslims around the world who were the most important audience, and he gave them little to chew on beyond debt forgiveness and expanded trade, notably with Egypt and Tunisia, which he cited as models for peaceful change.

Those initiatives are praiseworthy, but the sense of stalemate is palpable in much of the Middle East, which made it even more important that the president delineate a clear overall U.S. policy for the region in the post-Osama bin Laden world — most importantly what he expects Israel and the Palestinians to do to jump start peace talks beyond stating the obvious — that the status quo is not sustainable.

He did state, as I had hoped, that Israel’s pre-1967 borders should be the starting point for negotiations over a Palestinian state, something that the Netanyahu government has fiercely opposed. He did not rap the knuckles of the recalcitrant Palestinian leadership for climbing back into bed with Hamas, which he probably could not do because he knows that unholy alliance is a prerequisite for many Palestinians for statehood. Nor did he call for the ouster of Assad, while making only passing reference to the deepening quagmire in Libya.

There is nothing to show for the administration’s intense early efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, while George Mitchell, the president’s peace envoy, announced his resignation last week, his legendary patience having run out.

I continue to believe that a key to the long-term success of the Arab Spring rests with the only non-Arab country in the region.

This does not absolve the Palestinians of making nice, but Israel’s reaction of shock and alarm over Mubarak’s ouster was deeply disheartening, although not surprising. After all, no other nation in the region has a peace treaty with Egypt and the Egyptian president had supported Israel’s inhumane Gaza policy.

In fairness to Netanyahu, even if he wanted help speed Palestine statehood as a sop to the U.S. and Israel’s neighbors, which he does not, elements of Israeli society even more hawkish than he is would bring down his government.

I would never equate Netanyahu with Assad. I would defend Israel’s right to exist with my own blood. But it is long past time for the U.S. give Israel a dose of strong medicine. That would have spoken louder regarding the U.S.’s long-term intentions — and that it is foursquare behind the Arab Spring no matter where it may try to blossom — than any speechifying about the joys of democracy.

Click here for a text of the speech. Photograph by Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

         

17 Comments

  1. The protests are about conditions and government in the Arabs’ and Iranians’ own nations, not about Israel, which should be distinguished from the Arab-Iranian discontent.

    Israel is not the only source of instability in the Middle East, and much blamed on the “Palestinian Question” is wrongly blamed.

    * * *

    Interestingly to me as I listened to it, Obama has just put the word “blogger” on the map, so to speak, in his speech. That has been a toy word, contemporary vernacular, but now that the President has used it in a speech, it even can be considered formal (fit for speeches, as opposed to press conferences), as well as serious.

  2. T.M.: Yes, “blog” and “blogger,” along with other English words of all kinds have infused the rest of the world. But used by whom, under what circumstances. It’s a definite step up (respectability, “official” status) when the President uses such a word in a speech (intended for the whole world, no less). It’s not enough for it to be commonly understood (after all, four-letter words are understood) for it to be appropriate and serious to use (in a speech by a leader, proper use, the true test I apply, not just being faddishly added to well-known dictionaries).

    Now that he’s said it, all officials are free to say it.

  3. Quoting myself:

    . . . that the pro-democracy fever sweeping the Arab world has much to do with Al-Jazeera and social media . . .

  4. First, the pro democracy movement has more to do with food prices than anything else.

    Second, Israel does not illegally occupy the west bank. It conquered it. It took it by force, and that makes it yours. Sad but true fact of life. They no more illegally occupy it than the US illegally occupies native american land. You could say they stupidly and foolishly still occupy that chunk of land, which only makes their lives miserable with strife, but its not illegal.

  5. Wow, just read Obama’s speech. Its the best solution, and he forced the ball into Israel’s court which is wise because the Palestinians were never going to bring rationality to the table. That was slick.

  6. Obama’s assertion that Israel should essentially give up all barganing chips is sickening. Pre-1967 borders would leave Israel vulnerable to annihilation. Obama just asked Israel to weaken itself in the face of a very real threat to it’s existence. This isn’t the answer.

  7. More precisely, the Green Line is in no way definitive, just happening to demarcate additional accomplished facts after Israel won the war.

    UN Resolution 242 refers to “territories,” not “the territories,” and the authors are of record as saying that the Green Line is not sacrosanct: “We left the ‘the’ out.”

    Incidentally, that resolution also calls for

    termination of all claims or states of belligerency

    and of course Israel’s enemies other than Egypt haven’t done this.

    The Arabs can go first. It’s been almost totally one-way, Israel doing the concessions. Time for its enemies to be less hostile.

  8. You’re forgetting something, its been a long time since Israel was invaded, several things have changed that would likely preclude an invasion.

    First, direct US intervention. You think we will free Kuwait but we wouldn’t prevent the destruction of Israel?

    Second, Israel has nukes. Any country that tries an invasion is likely to be themselves annihilated. No country with nukes has ever been invaded for that reason.

    Israel if far better off in the long run making this concession.

  9. You make some fair points, Slamfu. Here’s why I disagree. Israel has nukes, sure, but I doubt they’d consider using them for anything other than a MAD situation. Preemptive nuclear strikes don’t go down well in world opinion. And don’t be so sure about the U.S. interveneing. This President is very timid when displaying our military power. Look at Libya. Before Bengazi was besieged Obama just used harsh language. Then he spent weeks getting a flimsy NATO coalition together to fight Gadafi’s forces from the air, all the while pulling our involvement out of it as soon as he could and denying that we’re even taking sides in this “humanitarian mission”.
    Israel has a well-established military with a top-notch airforce. But if an invasion comes to a compromised Israel, if the rockets, mortors, and tank columns come bearing down on Israeli citizens through Syrian controlled Golan Heights(like last time) and a Jordan controlled West Bank, Israel would be pressed from all sides. I fear that Obama would consider it more politically expediant to let Israel’s own military might hold the line on it’s own. Because if we jump into the fray, The U.S. incurs the wrath of the entire region. Total destabalization. War with Iran. More propaganda for the terrorists to use. For all his naivete, Obama is very much a calculating man. He’d weigh the pros and cons before rushing in to his ally’s rescue. I think that any response from us under Obama would be very measured. Look, give me any other president, and I would agree with you. But Obama has shown a severe lack of backbone in the past. My point stands. I feel that Obama has severely compromised our Jewish friends with this shameful doctrine.

  10. NoMoon87:

    Who is going to invade Israel?

    Why would they invade Israel?

    What chance would any invader have against Israel?

    No hypotheticals, please. Only real-world stuff.

  11. Israel’s neighbors despise Israel, they want to destroy them. They’ve said they’ve wanted to destroy them. That’s not empty rhetoric. They’re still lobbing rockets at them. They’re serious about this. Maybe I am being hypothetical, but it could happen if the Palestinians (or more accurately, the extremist groups egging them on. As in any war of aggression, the common people just get used) feel enboldened enough. I’ll get off my soap box. I’m only addressing a small part of the overall issue anyway. But Israel as a state could get destroyed one day. Don’t kid yourself. Giving away territories to a determined enemy won’t make Israel any safer.

  12. NoMoon87:
    As do many Israel sycophants, you fail the understand the difference between rhetoric and reality. The likelihood of Denmark invading Finland is greater than Lebanon or Syria or Iran invading Israel. Get a grip man, and get behind Obama’s utterly reasonable plan to jump start peace talks.

  13. Slamfu: Israel has nukes, but would employ proportionality. An invasion wouldn’t trigger an Israel nuclear strike on the invading nation, but missile strikes with WMDs, especially if they were effective, probably would.

    When Hussein in Iraq launched Scuds against Israel (as well as against belligerent nations), many of us worried if it would trigger a nuclear strike and we were waiting to learn if the warhead had gas in them. As it was, Israel was willing to tolerate having missiles strike it without doing anything itself; would other nations be as generous?

    * * *

    Now, what would happen to Gaza or to southern Lebanon if HAMAS or Hizballah armed its rockets with WMD warheads or chemical warheads of any kind? Not a nuke strike, but something strong, no doubt. (Nobody is confident in such a situation that Israel would strike the sponsor, likely Iran. More generosity.)

    * * *

    Shaun: An invasion? Unlikely, true. But the modern threat in that part of the world is in the air. Not so much Syrian or Saudi jets, but rather artillery (if it could be emplaced without detection) and of course, rockets (a threat including ballistic missiles from Iran).

    Massing for any invasion would be detected by Israel and stopped before the invasion started. (It’s anti-PC, but pre-emption rocks.)

  14. Denmark didn’t formerly shell Finland from high ground*, and isn’t a rogue nation that is among those who would destroy Finland if they could, and isn’t hosting people firing rockets into Finland, either.

    * HINT HINT HINT: Golan Heights

  15. Syria or Lebanon wouldn’t invade Israel. Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and probably others would. It would be a coalition of beligerants. Like before. Syria is a puppet of Iran. Egypt is in very real danger of being co-opted by radical elements. Hizbullah has embedded itself in Lebanon. I can’t sress enough that a mass attack on Israel is very plausible under the right circumstances. If these Arab states think they can succeed, they’ll go for it. Obama is brewing that terrible storm with his bullheadedness. If the Israelis do what the President asked them to do it will be more vulnerable. Why else would Hamas espress it’s approval with Obama’s “utterly reasonable plan”.

  16. No Moon 87 wrote:

    If these Arab states think they can succeed, they’ll go for it. Obama is brewing that terrible storm with his bullheadedness.

    1. Yes, they will go for it, my Lebanese friend long ago told me.

    2. It could be naivete’ or just out-of-touch behavior by him.

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