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Obama's Middle East goal: Tie US policy closer to American values

Obama's insistence that US policy in the Middle East support, rather than thwart, popular yearnings for self-rule is a warning to autocrats in the region – and marks an 'update' since his Cairo speech.

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Obama appears to want to find a way to shake up a moribund peace process, even as the seismic changes in the region suggest time is not on the side of those waiting for a better moment to make peace. The president called for an immediate return to negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians that would focus on borders and security – the two “final status” issues that seem the most likely to open the way to reaching a final settlement.

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Obama proposed that Israel’s borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war broadly serve as the basis for a settlement – hardly a revolutionary stance, given that it has long been seen as the starting point for setting borders, but one that rankles Israel’s conservative government all the same. In a meeting with Obama at the White House Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was emphatic that Israel, for security reasons, would never accept those borders.

But Obama in his speech tried to put the conflict, and his proposal for addressing it, in the regional context.

“The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel must act boldly to advance a lasting peace. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state,” the president added, “cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.”

Obama did speak of the reconciliation between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement and Hamas, the radical Islamist organization. But while he said the Palestinians will have to “answer questions” about Hamas’s rejection of Israel, he did not state categorically that Hamas’s participation in government is an automatic deal breaker. That may have been one of several signals in his speech suggesting that political Islam is likely to be a reality in the region and can be acceptable in nonviolent, democratic forms, some analysts say.

“The president is resisting the temptation to bash political Islam,” says Duke’s Mr. Jentleson, a former State Department official. “He’s setting the standard that, going forward, it won’t be who you are, but what you do, that matters.”

Still, any opening to political Islam strikes others as gravely naive.

Obama called on the world to “support the governments that will be elected later this year” in Egypt and Tunisia, but for others, the world should wait and see.

“What if those governments are dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood – which openly proclaims that ‘Jihad is our way’ – or other groups that favor terrorism as a means and Islamic domination as the ends?” says Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

That includes Hamas. It’s up to the Palestinians, he says, to prove “they want to have a Palestinian state more than they want to annihilate the only Jewish state.”

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