Friday, May 20, 2011

Obama's Speech: Arab Wariness, Israeli Anger, American Irrelevance

Reactions that the NYT sampled in various Arab capitals were mixed - and for good reason.  Obama had stirred many with his Cairo speech in 2009, only to falter in his follow-through and even back down in the face of Netanyahu's refusal to halt settlement construction in the West Bank.  And, of course, under previous US presidents, the US had acquiesced in such construction in both the West Bank and Gaza, supported Arab dictators across the board, and under Bush I and Bush II, twice invaded Iraq and killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.  People are understandably wary of Obama's rhetoric, and American intentions.

Two prominent Arab commentators hit those points during an interview with PBS Newshour.  Rami Khouri aptly noted the disconnect between Obama's rhetoric and American policies, but also noted that Obama had perhaps carved out some space for the US to deal with the recent inclusion of Hamas in the new Palestinian coalition.  Mona Eltahawy (who seems to be everywhere these days) was more blunt in her criticism:
for an audience in the Middle East and North Africa, that is very fed up and has long been very fed up of a clear double standard in U.S. foreign policy, and a policy that would take the sides of dictators, at the expense of the people, I don't think that the speech finally caught up, because, I mean, I heard many positive things, but there were many things that were glaringly missing.

For example, the United States gives the Egyptian armed forces $1.3 billion in aid every year. The Supreme Military Council, which runs Egypt right now, is endangering the very values and the revolution that President Obama praised today, because the Supreme Military Council in Egypt detains people, detains revolutionaries, tortures them, and puts them on military trial.

And then when it comes to the most glaring omission of all, and the country that is the worst offender and the strongest counter-revolutionary force, Saudi Arabia, the president didn't mention it at all. President Obama mentioned Iran as a potential threat in Bahrain. But remember, Saudi Arabia has actual troops on the ground in Bahrain.

And when it comes to religious freedom and women's rights, which the president mentioned -- and I praise him for that -- Saudi Arabia again is the worst offender, especially when it comes to its Shia minority and women's rights.

The NY Times also  reports on the icy relationship between Obama and Netanyahu leading up to Obama's speech yesterday (and their meeting today), as well as Netanyahu's gamesmanship in trying to trump Obama - even going so far as to contact John Boehner to let him know that he wanted to address Congress (an offer, I'd assume, that Boehner was more than happy to entertain, and that, most likely - to channel The Godfather - Boehner couldn't refuse).  Just before departing for the US, and before the speech, Netanyahu evidently called Sec of State Hillary Clinton to object furiously to Obama's recommendation that the 1967 borders - with land swaps - be the basis for a peace deal. But in the eyes of the international community (and until 2004, the US), the 1967 lines have always been the accepted basis for a settlement (as a Politico report notes).  What Netanyahu is seizing on is George Bush's 2004 statement to then Israel premier Ariel Sharon that a return to the 1967 boundaries would not accord with the new "realities" that Israel settlement construction had created.  At the time (and since), most experts have noted that Bush's statement was a significant departure from decades of US diplomacy.  One also had to ask, at the time, what gave Bush the right to make such a statement.  (Of course, Bush has never been one to accept international law as binding on the United States.)  More from the NYT:

In a statement after Mr. Obama’s speech on Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu’s office pointedly said that the prime minister would raise his concerns about Mr. Obama’s language about the pre-1967 borders during Friday’s meeting.

“While there were many points in the president’s speech that we appreciate and welcome, there were other aspects, like the return to the 1967 borders, which depart from longstanding American policy, as well as Israeli policy, going back to 1967,” Michael B. Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview. “The prime minister will raise the issue with the president. As the president said, the United States and Israel are great friends, and friends have to be able to talk frankly to one another.”

Yossi Beilin, a longtime peace negotiator for Israel and a former government minister who is now in private business, said by telephone that what Mr. Obama said was a “historic precedent.” He said that President Bush had spoken about ending the occupation that began in 1967, but that Mr. Obama’s formulation suggested an equal exchange of territory in a final deal.

Mr. Obama stated that the solution should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps, meaning that if, as expected, Israel held on to some close-in settlements, it would have to yield an equal amount of land to the future state of Palestine from within its borders.

This formulation goes beyond what President Bill Clinton called for in 2000 and is in keeping with one of two key Palestinian demands for a return to direct peace negotiations. The other is at least a temporary freeze in Israeli settlement building, which Israel has rejected. Whether the Palestinians could be persuaded to return to talks with only one of their two conditions met was unclear.

But Mr. Abbas has made clear that he would prefer negotiations over an appeal to the United Nations this September, the other path he has been pursuing. That path would help the Palestinians gain legal advantage over Israel but it could also lead to unmet expectations in the streets of the West Bank once it became clear that United Nations recognition did not rid the area of Israeli occupation. That could result in frustration and violence.

If Mr. Netanyahu was upset by the president’s reference to 1967, politicians to his right — who make up the bulk of his party and his governing coalition — were horrified.

Danny Danon, a member of Parliament from Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, said: “With his call for Israel to return to 1967 borders before the Palestinians even sit down at the negotiating table, it is now clear that the U.S. president has adopted Yasir Arafat’s infamous ‘Stages Plan’ and the hope to eventually remove the State of Israel from the map. I call on Prime Minister Netanyahu to unequivocally state to the president tomorrow that this vision will never be implemented as it is in direct opposition to the security and strategic interests of the people and land of Israel.”

Finally, a reality check from Andrew Bacevich on Obama's speech:
The hold-your-breath portion of the speech came last, when the president turned to the Israeli-Palestinian question. No doubt peace-process exegetes will spend the next days poring over the president's words attempting to divine their inner meaning. For my part, I noted three things of interest. First, although implicitly chastising Israel for continuing to expand its settlements, he was notably silent on their future. Second, after describing the basis for a settlement in terms of a "viable Palestine" living alongside a "secure Israel," Obama then offered this refinement: Palestine would be a "sovereign demilitarized state." I take this to mean that Palestine will stand in relation to Israel as Canada does to the United States. That appears to work for Canada (we last invaded during the War of 1812); whether demilitarization will satisfy a Palestinian definition of sovereignty seems less likely. Third, in terms of working through so-called final status issues, Obama suggested that the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian "right to return" be tabled for now, with attention given to questions of borders. Why any Palestinian negotiator would agree to that approach is beyond me.

And Stephen Walt weighed in even before the speech, with words that ring true in its aftermath:
the big problem is that nobody cares what U.S. presidents say anymore -- and especially not Obama -- because he hasn't delivered. As surveys of popular opinion in the Arab world have repeatedly shown, what his audience in the Middle East wants is not more elegant phrases beautifully delivered -- but actual policy change. Obama gave a wonderful speech in Cairo in June 2009 -- which was well-received -- but since then we've seen him backing down on Israel's settlements, helping trash the Goldstone Report, vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution on the settlements, and adopting a decidedly inconsistent attitude towards the Arab spring (we like it in Egypt and Libya; not so much in Bahrain).

Words do matter, but only when they are backed up by appropriate action. Obama gave some pretty good speeches on our terrorism problem, for example, but it was the decision to redouble the search for bin Laden and then the bold choice to send a team after him in Pakistan that is the potential game-changer there. Without significant policy change, in short, the speeches we're going to hear over the next week will just be a lot of eloquent irrelevance.

Well, Walt is wrong about one thing: Israeli politicians certainly do care about what this US president just said.  What's very sad is that, I'll predict, Netanyahu's anger will translate into some body blows to Obama's policy prescriptions about the 1967 borders.  (And I'll be clear: I agree completely with going back to the 1967 borders.  Ideally, even the huge settlements ought to be removed; but failing that, then land swaps.) Today, Obama is meeting with Netanyahu in the White House, where I'm sure some pointed remarks will be exchanged.  I'm sure Obama will more than hold his own there.  But then,
  • on Sunday, Obama addresses the AIPAC convention.  If he's to have any credibility going forward, he can't back down one word from what he enunciated yesterday.  I doubt that the response he gets will electrify - much less warm - him.
  • on Monday, Netanyahu addresses AIPAC - a hall full of people who adore him.  He will play to that, and I fully expect him to reject Obama's 1967-lines principle, and instead hammer Hamas+Iran = new Holocaust  = existential threat to Israel and world Jewry.  He will receive a rousing response, and have Obama back on his heels.
  • on Thursday, his markers down from the AIPAC address, Netanyahu addresses a Joint Session of Congress whose Republican members will be only too happy to embrace him personally (lots of big smiles and warm handshakes) - and whatever he has to say - if for no other reason than to put the screws to Obama as the 2012 election looms.

By next weekend, I'm betting it will be clear that
  • Obama's 1967-borders idea will be under heavy fire from Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and other Republican leaders in Congress (and Democrats will be hanging back).  The White House will know that it will receive no support from Capitol Hill.
  • With budget battles looming and the economy uncertain, it's doubtful that Obama will press the issue among the American people, where America's Christian Zionists will be backing Bibi anyway. 
  • Bibi will feel no serious pressure from the US to make "concessions" - which gives the Palestinian leadership no reason to go back to the negotiating table, because Netanyahu will give them nothing, and they don't need the humiliation.
  • Instead, they'll keep on their path to the UN General Assembly, where the US will be working furiously to undermine the vote on Palestinian statehood - to no avail, because the vast majority of the world's countries sympathize with the Palestinian cause.
In the end, Obama's speech will be rendered a historical footnote, not a game-changer; and as the tide now sweeping the Arab world engulfs Israel, the US will be able to do little more than watch from the sidelines while Israel struggles to remain afloat.

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