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Middle East Matters: Obama's speech on Middle East was almost perfect

Published: Monday, May 23 2011 7:12 a.m. MDT

An Israeli settler raises his hand next to an Israeli flag during a protest against a construction freeze in the West Bank settlements outside the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010. (Bernat Armangue, Associated Press) An Israeli settler raises his hand next to an Israeli flag during a protest against a construction freeze in the West Bank settlements outside the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010. (Bernat Armangue, Associated Press)

From my perspective, this has been a great month for President Obama’s Middle East policies.

First, the Navy Seals dispatched Osama bin Laden to the depths of the Indian Ocean, then the president slapped personal sanctions on the thugs ruling Syria, which was a step that no other president has had the guts to do.

More kudos are due to President Obama for delivering a 5,450-word speech on the Middle East on Thursday that was almost perfect.

These actions were all courageous ones, and one can only hope that they portend decisive American engagement with the region.

The president began his address by highlighting the impending withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever one thinks of the wars that we have waged in those countries (I supported both of them), this is a positive development, especially in the case of Iraq. As for Afghanistan, a gradual reduction in U.S. forces is the only way to see whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai can actually impose his will on an area larger than his palace.

After lauding the courage of protesters in Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Iran and Yemen, the president observed that “through the moral force of non-violence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades.”

Needless to say, there were lots of target audiences for that statement in the region.

The president was careful both to make his case for intervening in Libya and to remind his listeners that the U.S. “cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people…We have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to impose regime change by force.”

It bears repeating again: Every country in the Middle East needs a U.S. policy that is tailored to its unique history, demographics and power dynamics. A one-size-fits-all approach to protests and uprisings is most unwise. Well said, Mr. President.

After imposing unprecedented personal sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad, President Obama told Assad that he had two choices: lead a transition to democracy or leave office. My guess is that Assad will choose the third option of continuing to murder his people, but it was refreshing to hear an American president dispense with the illusion that the Syrian government is a potential partner for peace.

More than a few eyebrows raised when the president singled out regional ally Bahrain for criticism. Not only did the Bahraini ruling family use brutality to put down the protests by the Shiite majority, but it did so with the help of Saudi soldiers. Surely the corrupt al-Saud family in Riyadh felt just as targeted as their feckless Bahraini counterparts did by Obama’s broadside. I only wish that the president had mentioned the Saudis by name when he spoke of the crying need for women’s rights to be respected in the Middle East.

In a laudable effort to support the new governments in Egypt and Tunisia and to offer encouragement to protesters in other countries in the region, the U.S. will offer them significant financial support in conjunction with the World Bank, IMF and other countries. Let us hope that this aid will produce stable democracies in those countries.

The president must also be praised for demanding that Coptic Christians in Egypt be accorded the right to worship freely. Christians continue to be persecuted and harassed throughout the region, yet few religious leaders mention their plight. As a result, many Christians are leaving historically Christian cities like Bethlehem and Nazareth, both of which now have Muslim majorities.

Had President Obama ended his talk there, he would have delivered the most detailed and comprehensive speech on the Middle East in recent memory. However, he made the mistake of ending the talk with a lamentable analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that showed he does not really understand it.

I’m not sure that there was a need to mention Israelis and Palestinians in the talk, but if he was going to do it, he should have reflected more on the lessons of the failed Oslo process.

Jews who vilify President Obama for his positions on Israel have it wrong as well. I do not believe for a second that he intends to sell out Israel or compromise its security. It’s just that Jews have been spoiled by 16 years of Clinton and Bush II, both of whom had a special place in their hearts for Israel.

Like Bush I, President Obama does not get misty-eyed when he talks about the country. In all likelihood, he regards it as an important ally that must be defended, but it does not tug at his heart strings. Given the president’s background, there’s no reason that it should.

To be sure, there were plenty of positive statements in the speech in support of Israel. The president noted that “antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression” under the region’s authoritarian rulers; expressed his uneasiness with the recent Hamas-Fatah pact; called on Palestinians not to take unilateral steps towards statehood and condemned Hamas’s terrorism.

Unfortunately, all of these positives are outweighed in many circles by his call for the borders of Israel and “Palestine” to be based on the pre-Six-Day War borders of 1967. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the president to his face, this proposal is simply unworkable.

Mr. President, the problem is not the plan.

As Israel has shown with Egypt and Jordan, the details of peace agreements can be worked out when there is trust on both sides. The problem here is with who is sitting on the Palestinian side. For years Bill Clinton’s naÏve advisors told him that if he just came up with the right formula and invited the terrorist Yasser Arafat to the White House enough times, there would be peace in our time.

More sensible people knew from the beginning that as long as a terrorist was sitting on the other side of the table, there would never be peace. The compromises that Israel is being asked to make are almost all permanent in nature (e.g., land), while the Palestinians are only asked to make statements and promises that can be retracted at will. Right now the Palestinian representatives are a weak, illegitimate president whose term expired more than two years ago and the terrorist group Hamas. Would the U.S. negotiate away land to them if they were our neighbors?

President Obama did well to observe that “everyone knows … a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition and peace.”

The problem is that no one, certainly not their Palestinian counterparts, can guarantee the Israelis that their state will be left in peace after the ink is dry.

In a remarkable and little-noted statement, the president called for a “non-militarized” Palestinian state. (No Arab leader wants a militarized Palestinian state, but it was refreshing to hear this come from the mouth of a U.S. president.) The reason for this statement is precisely the reason that negotiations to establish a Palestinian state are useless right now.

During a briefing given to a senior State Department official and me (the note taker) by the Israeli Army’s Head of Research some years ago, the official remarked that he was profoundly troubled by what he was hearing, which seemed to suggest that murderous anti-Semitism was alive and well in the region.

The Israeli general asked him a very sobering question: If the Palestinians had the Israelis’ military capability and vice versa, what would happen? After a brief pause, the official said, “I guess there would be six million fewer Jews in the region.”

The president is only kidding himself if he believes that the answer has changed in the intervening years. Until it does, there is no point in talking peace, regardless of the plan.

Mark Paredes served as a U.S. diplomat in Israel and Mexico, blogs for the Jewish Journal, and will begin leading tours to Israel next year for Morris Murdock Travel. He can be reached at deverareligione@yahoo.com.

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