President Obama Grapples with Middle East Issues

President Obama Grapples with Middle East Issues

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In what was billed as a reprise of his 2009 Cairo-speech to the Muslim world, President Barack Obama attempted to lay down a new marker for U.S. Middle East policy at the State Department May 19.

This time his address was intended to reflect the changes in the region in light of uprisings this year in Muslim countries. But recent polls indicate the people in the region distrust Mr. Obama and the United States more than ever before.

“For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel's security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace,” said Mr. Obama.

“Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind.
Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense,” he continued.“A failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world.”

The address came one day ahead of what would turn out to be a tense White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Obama became the first U.S. president to explicitly call for Israelis and Palestinians to seek a two-state solution based on the borders that existed in 1967 before Israel seized a large swatch of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the Six Day War.

“We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves and reach their full potential in a sovereign and contiguous state.”

Mr. Netanyahu reacted angrily, bluntly upbraiding the U.S. leader at the White House with a stern rebuke, declaring that the 1967 borders are “indefensible,” and “it's not going to happen.” Just two days later, Mr. Obama sought to reassure Israel and its supporters of “ironclad” U.S. support for the Jewish state from his administration.

In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the president clarified his position, pointing out that 1967 boundary lines should be the starting point for talks on a new Palestinian state. But he allowed that the dividing line would be negotiated to accommodate Israeli settlements and security needs.

“Israelis and Palestinians will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967,” Pres. Obama said.

“What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately,” he continued. “I've done so because we can't afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades to achieve peace. The world is moving too fast. The extraordinary challenges facing Israel will only grow. Delay will undermine Israel's security and the peace that the Israeli people deserve.” Mr. Obama said, fueling the suspicion that this speech was intended all along to comfort jittery Israelis in the face of the changes which have shaken the Arab and Muslim world, and to mollify Jewish donors in this country who support the Zionist state whether it's right or wrong.

“I don't think the Americans understand what is happening out here,” journalist Robert Fisk told the Al Jazeera English news service. “He wants a new role, but it's the Middle East that's new, becoming new.

“Why doesn't he ask the Arabs what they want America's role to be in their region? The problem is that America doesn't realize that its power and influence in the Middle East is declining. It doesn't realize that Israel's power may well be declining,” Mr. Fisk said.

U.S. policy may simply be a cover for Israel's true strategy—stalling for time, while the Jewish state continues to expand its illegal settlements in territory occupied since 1967. Just prior to his departure for the U.S., Mr. Netanyahu's government announced that another 1,500 settler homes in occupied Arab East Jerusalem.

“The formula has to be exactly as the International Court of Justice said in July 2004 and as the UN General Assembly says every year with near-unanimous support,” author Norman Finkelstein told Pacifica Radio's “Democracy Now!”

“The Palestinians have the right to self-determination in the whole of the West Bank, the whole of Gaza, with East Jerusalem, the whole of East Jerusalem, as its capital. That's the Palestinian right. That's not subject to negotiations. Rights are enforced; they are not negotiated. The moment you say it has to be mutually agreed upon means Israel has a veto over Palestinian rights,” Dr. Finkelstein said.

“On the one hand you're right,” Dr. Toby Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University told The Final Call, “that much of this speech was not only” aimed for an Israeli audience.

“There are two aspects. One is that not many people in the Arab world were really interested, or particularly concerned about what (Mr.) Obama was going to say. People there, if they even knew about the speech certainly didn't have expectations that it was going to break new ground,” he continued. “Saudi Arabia was never mentioned. So, the response in the region has been muted.

“But also, you're right, that in the United States, it never really is about the Arab world and what the Arab world and what the Muslim world thinks about American policy,” said Dr. Jones who is the author of “Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.”

“On the one hand, privately I'm sure the Saudis saw the speech as reassuring, because (Mr.) Obama didn't mention the Saudis at all in his speech. Publicly, the Saudis have been more critical. They see the president's position on Israel as not substantive or serious,” he continued.

“American silence and support for the political status quo in much of the Middle East has crippled pro-democracy movements rather than strengthened them,” said Dr. Jones. “The most obvious gap in U.S. policy is Saudi Arabia, where (Mr.) Obama's administration has not only condoned, but supported the forces of counterrevolution, anti-Shiism, and gender apartheid.”