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WASHINGTON — President Obama, speaking on Sunday to the nation’s foremost pro-Israel lobbying group, repeated his call for Palestinian statehood based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders adjusted for land swaps, issuing a challenge to the Israeli government to “make the hard choices that are necessary to protect a Jewish and democratic state for which so many generations have sacrificed.”
In his remarks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the president, while offering praise for the relationship with Israel, did not walk back from his speech on Thursday, which had infuriated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Rather, the president took indirect aim at Mr. Netanyahu, first by repeating what the Israeli prime minister so objected to — the phrase pre-1967 borders — and then by challenging those whom he said had “misrepresented” his position....
Food for Thought
Despite the talk about “Obama’s Mideast speech” Thursday, I actually heard two separate addresses. In the first, President Barack Obama offered vague nostrums about the “Arab spring,” best summarized in three words: Democracy is good. Obama transitioned awkwardly to the second speech, about Israelis and Palestinians, saying: “Let me conclude by talking about another cornerstone of our approach to the region, and that relates to the pursuit of peace.” In this section, the professorial president turned from airy abstractions to problematic particulars. Although it was impossible to predict America’s next move in the Arab world from the speech’s first part, we now know exactly how an Israel-Palestine peace treaty would look if Obama could dictate it and those annoying people who live there would just follow.
Sophisticated cinema buffs will have identified the inspiration for the “Democracy is good” quotation – that frat house classic, “Animal House.” In the fictitious campus where the movie’s hijinks occur, the founder’s statue features the empty motto “Knowledge is good.” Of course it is, and so is democracy – for many of the reasons Obama identified. But I defy anyone, based on that speech, to explain why Obama abandoned Hosni Mubarak in Egypt rather quickly, attacked Muhammar Qaddafi very definitively, and dithered with Bashar al-Assad, only abandoning him quite recently. Moreover, can anyone predict Obama’s next move based on this speech or identify just what principles will guide him?
President Obama’s major policy address on the Middle East got many things right. He pointed to al-Qaeda and terrorism, which targets civilians, as a dead end. He sided rhetorically with the grassroots movements for greater democracy in the region. He condemned outright the longstanding regimes, like that of Hosni Mubarak, that had been US allies, which ruled through sordid police states. He pledged US support for democracy movements. He avoided hypocrisy by condemning US allies such as the king of Bahrain and President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen for repressing their own movements. He acknowledged the importance of ending the Palestinian people’s long sojourn in the wilderness of statelessness. He pointed to the constraining by corrupt elites of the economic and educational opportunities of young people in the Middle East as among the central discontents leading to the Arab Spring. He underlined the importance of women’s rights, and rights for minorities such as Christians and Shiites.
The courage of Obama’s speech should be recognized. He will have angered the two central allies of the US in the region, the governments that have formed the two pillars of US Middle East policy. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is angry at Obama (calling him more or less a wet-behind-the-ears young man) for abandoning long-time Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Saudi Arabia views Egypt as key to its own security and is extremely nervous about where politics in that country might go and how it will affect the kingdom. King Abdullah is also furious that the Obama administration has openly criticized the Sunni king of Bahrain for crushing his own democracy movement, which had a disproportionately Shiite cast (Shiites are now 58% of the citizen population but discriminated against economically and kept from expressing their majority politically). Obama if anything was more forthright and harsh in his criticisms of Manama on Thursday than he had been before. Saudi Arabia pumps on the order of 11 percent of the world daily petroleum output, has a significant impact on its price, and has hundreds of billions of dollars in reserves that it invests in the West as well as in the Middle East. Obama has taken a major risk in angering its king and adopting a policy he opposes everywhere but in Libya.
Obama was also honest and searing in his implicit criticism of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose government has obstructed peace talks with the Palestinians and pursued an inexorable and wide-ranging project of colonizing the Palestinian West Bank in hopes of ultimately creating a Greater Israel and permanently forestalling the rise of a Palestinian state. Obama had put resources and his own prestige on the line in attempting to kick-start negotiations two years ago, but the effort crashed an burned primarily because of Israeli intransigence and Obama’s special envoy on this issue, former Senator George Mitchell (who even more or less resolved the Northern Ireland conflict) has just resigned in a mixture of despair and disgust....
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