Obama's Mideast speech: Israel and the Arab Spring

Our view: The president put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict squarely in the context of the revolution sweeping the Arab world

May 19, 2011

The most surprising aspect of President Barack Obama's speech Thursday on U.S. policy in the Middle East may have been his strongly worded call for a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on Israel's boundaries before 1967. Observers had been speculating for weeks about whether Mr. Obama would offer his own plan for a Mideast peace agreement as the White House scrupulously declined to comment on the subject. Yet the outline for peace unveiled by the president Thursday was surprising not so much because it was anything new but because, as the president acknowledged, everybody has known all along that's what ultimately has to happen — even though they've spent decades pretending otherwise.

The refreshing candor of Mr. Obama's remarks on the peace process were reflected in his prescriptions for reformulating U.S. policy in light of the mass pro-democracy movements sweeping the Arab world. Mr. Obama acknowledged that the U.S. initially was slow to support protesters in Tunisia and Egypt who pushed longtime autocratic U.S. allies from power, and he conceded that America's short-term interests in maintaining regional stability had often trumped its long-term democratic values. But he pledged that in the future America would support democratic reform in the region, both because the status quo is unsustainable and because failure to change would threaten even deeper divisions between the U.S. and the Arab world.

That policy shift, said Mr. Obama, is already reflected in the withdrawal of 100,000 troops from Iraq so far and the end of any U.S. combat role there by the end of year. In Afghanistan, Mr. Obama said, the momentum of the Taliban has been broken, paving the way for the eventual departure of U.S. and NATO troops there as well. The president also said the death of Osama bin Laden has dealt a mortal blow to al-Qaida, whose ideology of violent jihad was already losing support among Muslims worldwide and which had finally been rendered irrelevant by the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators responsible for the Arab Spring.

Mr. Obama has been criticized both at home and in the Arab world for a sense of drift and a lack of consistency in U.S. foreign policy, complaints he had obviously taken to heart when he took pains to reiterate that while America's approach would be guided by an overarching commitment to democratic change in the region, each country was different and demanded a unique response. For Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, and Egypt, one of America's most important allies, he promised both political and economic support for a peaceful transition to democracy. Specifically, he said the U.S. would forgive $1 billion in Egyptian debt to help its new government make a fresh start and pledged another $1 billion to an economic development fund to foster jobs and growth in the region.

Regarding Syria, where a violent government crackdown has killed hundreds of protesters, Mr. Obama announced new sanctions against President Bashar Assad and other top officials and demanded authorities allow peaceful protests, let in human rights monitors and open a dialogue with pro-democracy forces. He also took the opportunity to denounce the hypocrisy of Syria's main backer, Iran, which he accused of trying to destabilize the region by sowing sectarian and ethnic divisions among Arab states while brutally suppressing dissent at home.

Mr. Obama said Iran is also attempting to take advantage of the turmoil in Bahrain, a close U.S. ally that is also home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. But he insisted that mass arrests and the use of brute force there won't make calls for reform go away, and he all but ridiculed that government's offer of talks with the protesters its soldiers have been attacking by saying there can be no real dialogue if the opposition leaders are all in jail. In Yemen, another U.S. ally in the war on terror, Mr. Obama said President Ali Abdullah Saleh must follow up on a transfer of power to democratic rule, and he staunchly defended the U.S. decision to join the NATO effort to unseat Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

In all, the president laid out a pragmatic, nuanced approach to the region that also put the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the context of the larger events unfolding in the Arab world. Mr. Obama was right to warn that, given those changes, the current standoff between Israel and the Palestinians is unsustainable — and that, in any case, the U.S. lacks the power to impose a settlement. It's time for both sides to drop the pretense that the U.S. will come up with some new plan that magically gives each side everything it wants and accept the reality that it's in both their interests to negotiate the best deal for themselves while they still can.

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