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Obama's Latest Middle East Speech: Outlines of a New US Policy in the Region?

Updated on June 8, 2011

This past Thursday, President Obama delivered a landmark speech at the State Department in Washington DC that in the most audacious, stunning style, outlined what in some key respects, could rightfully qualify as a paradigm shift in American mid-east policy.

Acknowledging the tumultuous events of the last six months in the region, triggered by the Dec. 17 self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi (the Algerian street vendor who chose death over the daily humiliation he’d suffered at the hands of corrupt local officials), as representing the most ardent and virtuous expression of the people’s long-ignored yearnings for freedom, Obama condemned the efforts by authorities in Libya and Syria to thwart these aspirations with violence and repression.

In the case of Libya, he defended the US’ participation in a UN/NATO–sponsored international coalition intent on preventing Moammar Gadhafi from massacring thousands of Libyan citizens who had braved his regime’s heavy-handed military action in cities like Benghazi and Misrata.

For those who expressed a great deal of angst and skepticism about military action against Gadhafi’s Libya, President Obama reiterated that while “we cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people, and we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to impose regime change by force -- no matter how well intended it may be,” allowing a deranged tyrant who had declared war on his own people and promised “to hunt them down like rats” was a morally bankrupt and indefensible option.

But Obama reserved the most clamorous criticism for Syria.

Denouncing the Syrian regime for choosing “the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens” and praising the Syrian people for exhibiting unparalleled “courage in demanding a transition to democracy,” Obama declared that President Assad had but two options now: either “lead that transition or get out of the way.”

As an indication of his disgust with the Syrian regime’s actions, Obama re-affirmed his commitment to working with the international community to institute a new round of sanctions including the confiscation of personal assets belonging to key elements within the Assad government.

To buttress the belief that to truly have a lasting or resonating meaning, the agitation for rights, political participation and transparency in government must have an immediate, measurable impact on the lives of average citizens, starting with Tunisia and Egypt, Obama did something that no other US president had ever tried before.

He proposed what is akin to an abbreviated Marshall Plan for Tunisia and Egypt; a multifaceted mélange of measures that he hopes over time would guarantee steady progress toward some lofty goals: free and fair elections, the evolution of strong democratic institutions, broad economic empowerment, and financial stability.

Among other things, it included tasking the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund with orchestrating a plan for review at the upcoming G-8 Summit regarding “what needs to be done to stabilize and modernize the economies of Tunisia and Egypt;” writing off $1 billion of Egypt’s debt and re-channeling these funds to “foster growth and entrepreneurship” in the Egyptian economy; working with Congress to create Enterprise Funds, modeled after funds used to support transitions in Eastern Europe immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall, to invest in both Tunisia and Egypt; and working with the EU to launch a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative that would “facilitate more trade within the region, build on existing agreements to promote integration with U.S. and European markets, and open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement.”

However, the most evocative and daring aspect of Obama’s speech, for which he would undoubtedly and continually attract equal praise and scorn , pertained his comments about the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After reciting the familiar platitudes about the need for reasoned negotiations, imploring both sides to action in order to seize the historic opportunity that the current situation in the region offers, re-stating the viability of the two-state solution, President Obama went farther than any US President before him in categorically stating that: "The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states."

While most people seemed to perceive Obama’s declaration as bold and relatively more forthright, many have predictably reacted with a mix of apprehension and revulsion.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who interestingly visited the White House the day after Obama’s speech, unabashedly rejected the withdrawal to the 1967 borders. He called the idea "indefensible" especially being that it would, in his view, and cause Israel to cede major Israeli population centers to the proposed Palestinian territory.

At the White House meeting with Obama on Friday, Netanyahu further declared "Israel wants peace, I want peace. ... We want a peace that will endure. ... For there to be peace, Palestinians cannot expect Israel to go back to the 1967 lines."

Not the least surprising, the reactions from the conservatives were scathing and epileptic. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whom most people expect would be the Republican nominee for the 2012 presidential elections, accused Obama of not only throwing Israel “under the bus" but handing Palestinians a victory even before negotiations between the parties resumed.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty called it "a disaster waiting to happen." And certainly not to be outdone, Former Sen. Rick Santorum called the Obama’s approach "dangerous."

But is this contrived outrage really anything more than just political theater? Didn't Obama simply state what was always implied or generally understood as the outlines of the same territorial settlement that his predecessors, Democrat and Republican, promoted?

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I personally do not expect that anything substantive will result from this speech. In fact, my issue with Obama is that he did not go far enough in either attempting to re-cast the discourse, re-start stalled negotiations or acknowledge the material conditions that must necessarily be reconciled to bring lasting peace to fruition.

As it stands right now, Netanyahu is adamantly opposed to talks with a newly constituted Fatah-Hamas Palestinian government. The Israeli Interior Ministry is aggressively building thousands of new housing units; some on even land that Israel annexed after the 1967 war. Additionally, Israel wants the Palestinians to drop any claim to East Jerusalem, their declared capital of a future Palestine.

The Palestinians, more specifically Hamas, on the other hand are still unwilling to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. Some elements within the Palestinian authority are reportedly planning to unilaterally take their bid for statehood to the United Nations this September. Understandably, they are presently refusing to return to negotiations while Israel continues to expand its real estate holdings in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

So, in the end, while one would be remiss not to broadly recognize some of the ideas and actions that Obama outlined last Thursday as meritorious and refreshing, it would be disingenuous to overlook their untoward limitations. Though in all fairness, Obama did concede that his suggestions about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, by far the most-defining in Middle East politics, were merely a start, it is still fair to characterize them as having fallen woefully short.

Clearly lacking was the enunciation of a vision, blueprint or road-map for resolving the most thorny points of disagreement: the Fatah-Hamas unity government and what it means for real negotiations given Hamas’ continuing refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist, Israel’s continuing expansion of Jewish settlements on annexed Palestinian lands, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.


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      Howard Schneider 

      7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Great Hub. It was an excellent landmark speech. Both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict expressed outrage. This suggests to me that President Obama is on to something and has come up with the correct policy.


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