Obama’s Middle East Address: Challenges And Opportunities – OpEd


Obama’s much awaited “Arab Spring” address has met with both criticism and appreciation from all quarters concerned. It has simultaneously been hailed as having got a touch of reality and criticized as having no understanding of reality. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu who coincidentally is visiting the United States has reacted by saying that Obama’s proposal of an Israeli retreat to pre-1967 lines would leave Israel with “indefensible” borders. He has gone a step ahead and approved construction of 1,550 housing units in two Jerusalem settlements as a direct affront to Obama’s statement that “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation”. The GOP has also criticized that Obama “threw Israel under the bus” and has handed Palestinians a victory even before negotiations have begun. But international observers have termed Obama’s speech as “the most detailed peace vision” but falling short of a formal peace plan, something that could disappoint many in the Arab world who had expected Obama to deliver concrete results after taking office in 2009. Netanyahu has said in a statement that “the viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of Israel’s existence.”

Obama’s persistent pointer to the settlement issue coupled with his vision of an Israeli retreat to pre-1967 lines with “mutually agreed swaps of land” would mean that most Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem would come under the Palestinian state. At the same time, the new “reconciliation agreement” between Hamas and Fatah has sent mixed messages across the Arab world. While many, if not most, view it as a first step towards gaining legitimacy in the UN General Assembly and forming a “unity government” Israel views it with suspicion and apprehension. Despite the agreement, Hamas has not indicated towards a change in its professed goal of obliterating Israel which might be a roadblock during the proposed September voting in the UNGA. None of the warring parties have promised an unconditional return to the negotiating table citing unresolved concerns.

The impact of the address would decide the future of not just Israel and Palestine but the whole of Middle East, a turbulent and mercurial region, owing to an Arab majority in terms of population but with Jewish military superiority. It presents both opportunities and challenges for the concerned parties.
The run up to the UNGA vote in September will determine if the union between Hamas and Fatah will lead to a unity government or end in divorce due to disagreements. In fact, the address itself may lead to disputes in the Palestinian camp about proceeding with the UNGA vote. Some might even want to cancel the vote and get back to negotiations, something that Israel might be depending on to prolong the dispute. Hamas might also have to amend its charter, as the dream of a Palestine replacing Israel will remain just that, a dream.

At the same time, the Israeli camp needs to introspect and decide on the future of the illegal settlements. The recent democratic movements in the Middle East are a harbinger of changes to come. Israel’s success so far, in steamrolling Palestinian interests in East Jerusalem and carrying on with the construction cannot be expected to continue under the present circumstances. Israel will also have to recognize the reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah, stop calling it as an impediment to peace talks and seize the opportunity to effectively end the death and destruction caused by rocket attacks.

The looming 2012 elections and opposition from the GOP for his speech should not pressurize President Obama into changing his stand on the issue. The negotiations, if and when they start, should not be an attempt to dissuade Palestine from seeking a vote for its legitimacy in the UNGA. They should rather determine the course Palestine should take after the vote and not the course of the vote itself. The US should also wake up to the reality of people’s movements toppling the very same dictators it had installed or befriended or both for its own strategic interests and should respect the will of the people. If Palestine manages to get around 170 or 180 votes in its favor (which it seems poised to get), the US would be expected to support the proposal in the UNSC and not veto it as doing so would merely inflame the anti-American sentiment the region has become notorious for.

Having shown incredible boldness and political will in changing the traditional and conventional American stance on Israel, President Obama will do well to make full use of the opportunity he himself has created, to change the perception among the Arab population about America. His Middle East speech, announcing billions of dollars in aid to the fledgling people’s governments in Egypt and Tunisia, increasing pressure on allies like Syria, Yemen and Bahrain to move towards democratic transformation and making a clear stand on the Israel-Palestine issue, can be seen as a timely attempt to reach out to the Arab populace after struggling to keep pace with the people’s movements in the region.

Jeysundhar D blogs at jeys-abode.blogspot.com

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