In Obama's speech, a new approach to Middle East: candor

The president didn't announce any policy changes but sought to challenge his listeners' preconceptions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Dan Balilty/AP
Miriam Najel, a Jewish settler who emigrated from the United Kingdom 22 years ago, watched the televised speech of US President Barack Obama in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ofra Thursday.

Did President Obama in his Cairo speech signal a new toughness towards the Arab-Israeli peace process?

Past presidents have opposed Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In Cairo, Mr. Obama said plainly that the US will not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.

Past presidents have supported the two-state solution, with Israel and a Palestinian nation living side by side. In Cairo, Obama insisted that each side needs to recognize the other's right to exist.

With these and other points, Obama was not so much making new policy as forcefully explaining the implications of policies that exist, says Frederick Barton, codirector of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"His speech had this element of candor that his immediate audience [in the Middle East] is not familiar with," says Mr. Barton.

Obama's 55-minute address was heavily promoted by the White House, both in the US and the Middle East. Given its importance, it is almost certain that Obama and his speechwriters considered carefully every phrase, nuance, and emphasis.

In general, the speech appeared to be an effort to get everyone in the region to take a hard look at themselves. Thus he talked about Islamic extremism, Holocaust denial, and the lack of women's rights in many Middle Eastern countries. But he also talked about Israel's responsibilities to displaced Palestinians.

"I think the most important thing people should take away from this speech was that the president really tried to hold the mirror up to all of the communities with whom he was speaking," said Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a published analysis of the talk.

As to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute – the pivot around which so much in the region moves – the speech did not reveal any big policy changes. But given the history of the peace process, even marginal changes in rhetoric can be important in the eyes of the players.

In discussing a future Palestinian state, for instance, Obama called it simply "Palestine" – a formulation US leaders seldom, if ever, use. Normally, they opt for more ambiguous terms.

Obama talked about the "unbreakable" bond between the US and Israel, the pain of the Holocaust, and Israel's right to exist. But he also talked about the pain of Palestinian dislocation, and right of Palestinians to their own state.

"That equivalence of Palestinian and Israeli problems is seldom made so closely by a US president," says Matthew Duss, a Middle East researcher at the Center for American Progress.

"That is very significant," he says.

Obama recently called for a freeze on Israeli settlement activity. The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected this call.

Meanwhile, in the US, the National Jewish Democratic Council, the organization for Jewish members of Obama's own party, praised the president for emphasizing the necessity of acceptance of the Jewish homeland in Israel.

"We recognize his wisdom in speaking directly to the Muslim world about the need to abandon fantasies of destroying Israel," said the group in a press release.

Ron Bruder, a New York Jewish entrepreneur who founded the Education for Employment Foundation, an organization dedicated to training and finding jobs for youth in the Middle East and North Africa, praised Obama's speech as a positive move for the region.

"He is putting us on the right path for global peace," says Mr. Bruder.

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