This commentary was published in The Kuwait Times on 15/05/2011
A few days back, the New York Times reported that President Obama was planning to deliver a major speech designed to "reset" US relations with the Arab World. I found the article troubling. According to "unnamed US officials" cited in the story, "Mr Obama was casting about for ways to tie together events in the Middle East [i.e. the Arab Spring and the killing of bin Laden] and that "the current plan is for the President to keep his focus on the broader changes in the Arab World, rather than to present a specific new plan for reviving the [Israeli-Palestinian] peace talks".
All I can say is I sure hope the New York Times got the story wrong. I believe that most Arabs are not looking to the United States to "sprinkle holy water" on their Arab Spring (with Libyans being the singular exception). Nor do they need help in understanding the significance of, or the consequences of, this moment in their history. Arabs are not looking to the US President for an analysis of their circumstances. While what they want from America may differ in some details from country to country, a core concern shared by most Arabs is that America demonstrates leadership in resolving the Palestinian issue.
In anticipation of Obama's speech, I have been asking a wide range of Arab friends and acquaintances, from revolutionaries and intellectuals to government officials, what they want to hear from the US President. While offering a diverse menu of issues (Libyans want arms, Egyptians and Tunisians want economic assistance and investment to create needed employment, etc), two strong points of consensus emerge regarding the issues they hope Obama will address.
On the one hand, these Arab interlocutors make clear that the US is still paying a price for Bush era policies, and that President Obama is still suffering from a "post-Cairo speech" let down. That speech raised expectations which were not fulfilled, shaking confidence in US leadership. Therefore, they caution against another "big speech" that promises a lot and delivers too little. And because the headline leading up to the 2009 Cairo University speech and then coming out of that speech was the President's commitment to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, failure to address this issue now, or to address it only in generalities or with more vague promises "to advance the peace process," will either deepen mistrust or provoke scorn or rage.
In recent days, the importance of the Palestinian issue has only been heightened by the resignation of former Senator George Mitchell and by what is expected to be Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's triumphant appearance before the US Congress. While Mitchell's much heralded appointment as Special Envoy raised hopes among some in the Middle East, his tenure has been disappointing. His departure is being viewed as an admission of a collapse of the process in which he and the President had invested a great deal of political capital. And with Netanyahu and Congress both in agreement on blocking the recently completed Palestinian reconciliation pact and the Palestinian leadership's efforts to seek the United Nations' recognition of their state in September, it would be viewed as a glaring omission and a lack of serious intent should Obama fail to address the issue of Palestine in whatever Middle East speech he is to give.
Now, to be sure, there are voices here in the US maintaining that the Arab Spring has eclipsed Palestine and that Arabs now have bigger issues on their plate. They argue that Palestine was always nothing more than a diversion which Arab rulers used to distract their subjects - to redirect their anger away from home at Israel and the US With revolutions now underway in many parts of the Middle East, the removal of Osama bin Laden from the scene, and with Arabs concerned with Iran's push for regional hegemony, these analysts say that it is these issues, not Palestine, that should be the topics dominating the President's message.
Of course any Presidential address on the Arab World today will have to comment on the changes underway, the killing of bin Laden, and regional concerns with extremism. But none of this can justify ignoring Palestine. It is not an either/or proposition. Our polling across the Arab World consistently demonstrates the importance of Palestine for Arabs from Morocco to the Arab Gulf. And the President, himself, knows that efforts to diminish the centrality of Palestine are wrong. Obama understands the importance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in creating a more stable and secure Middle East and in improving US standing in the Arab World. That is why he invested so heavily in efforts to address the issue and that is why he has repeatedly and publicly made the case for the importance that this matter holds for US national security interests in the region.
That his peace-making efforts have been stymied by circumstances beyond his control is unfortunate, but to advise him to surrender to these circumstances at this point would be a tragic mistake. He cannot, of course, make peace by himself. And he must always be attentive to the domestic political consequences of any actions he may attempt. But even with these constraints, there are things he can do in a speech that would demonstrate leadership at this critical time.
The President can make clear in a speech the parameters of what would constitute a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Building on the Taba framework, which was nearly completed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in 2000, and the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, the President can put forward an Obama Plan. But he must go further by laying down firm markers for behavior and binding timetables for implementation, backed up by US commitments as incentives and the threat to withhold political support as a sanction. He then must sell this framework to the American public, the world community and especially to Arabs and Israelis.
To do all this will be difficult and will take leadership and determination. But no one should ever have expected that undoing years of neglect, entitlement, or bad behavior would be easy. If we want to be serious and be seen as serious, the issue must be tackled head on. To do anything less, would be a mistake. If the Times story is right and ignoring Palestine or downplaying this issue is what is being contemplated, then I would respectfully suggest skipping the speech entirely. Rather than appearing insensitive and out of touch, earning scorn or worse, it would be better to do nothing at all.
James J Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute