Expectations Build for Obama Mideast Policy Speech

My latest piece for IPS, on whether or not Obama will make a serious pitch re Israel-Palestine in his upcoming policy speech on the Mideast.

WASHINGTON, May 14, 2011 (IPS) – With Jordan’s King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu coming to Washington next week, anticipation of a major Middle East policy speech by President Barack Obama set for Thursday is growing rapidly.

A key question on analysts’ minds is whether the deadlocked Israel- Palestinian peace process will be part of that speech, which comes on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit.

“One cannot separate the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation, sieges, and colonisation from the pro-democracy struggles against autocratic regimes sweeping the Arab world,” Professor Stephen Zunes, an expert on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East at the University of San Francisco, told IPS.

The resignation Friday of Obama’s Special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell strengthens the view that the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate cannot be put off. Mitchell’s effective resignation date of May 20, the same day Obama will meet with Netanyahu, puts even more focus on that deadlock, which has been further complicated by this month’s Egyptian-mediated reconciliation agreement between the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, which Washington considers a terrorist group.

King Abdullah is scheduled to visit on Tuesday.

Obama has also been facing growing pressure to clarify the United States’ position on the upheavals throughout the Arab world.

Critics are saying that Obama simply has no strategy for how to respond to the Arab Spring.

“We need a broader strategic idea of how to proceed throughout the Middle East, but we obviously don’t have one,” former George W. Bush administration ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said in a recent Fox News appearance.

Simultaneously, Obama is facing growing pressure from Arab governments and from domestic pro-peace groups to take some steps to revive talks between Israel and the Palestinians. And many of his advisers believe he needs to separate his response to the Arab Spring from a new strategy with the Israelis and Palestinians.

The time for these decisions is now, say many analysts, because of the political credit Obama has recently gained with the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Benjamin J. Rhodes, one of Obama’s deputy national security advisers, told the New York Times that the message will be that “Bin Laden is the past; what’s happening in the region is the future.”

Some experts believe Obama needs to address Israel-Palestine for that message to have credibility.

“The most important act for the Americans is to push for a fair and equitable settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, even as the west must redefine itself as the open-hearted friend of the new Arab societies emerging from the rubble of dictatorship,” wrote Ahmed Rashid, an expert in Afghan and Pakistani politics for the Financial Times.

The prevailing feeling, however, is that Obama will not present a new plan on Israel and the Palestinians next week.

Citing “U.S. officials and Middle East hands,” Laura Rozen, the senior foreign policy writer for Yahoo News, and longtime foreign policy writer for Politico, reported that “next week’s parade of Middle East visitors and speeches won’t be the time for Obama to issue a major new U.S. push for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks…That potential speech, on the U.S. vision for the basis of an Israeli- Palestinian peace settlement, is expected to be delayed until August, ahead of a Palestinian plan to seek a vote recognizing Palestinian statehood at the United Nations in September.”

But that idea could have serious consequences for Obama’s credibility in the Middle East.

“If Obama lauds the Arab spring in North Africa without alluding to the Arab winter in West Asia, he will have no credibility in either geography,” Chas Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told IPS. “If he fails to explain the failure of the botched peace process and the resignation of George Mitchell, he will simply confirm the diplomatic irrelevance of the United States as the U.N. General Assembly prepares to take the Israel-Palestine issue in September.”

And that position will find some support in Washington.

“There’s clearly a lot going on in the region, and there’s a case to be made and some are making it, that now is not the time,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, director of the pro-peace lobbying group, J Street. “But we do believe that the only way to avoid U.N. action on a Palestinian state in a unilateral kind of way is for either the president or prime minister to put forward” a peace plan.

Ben-Ami’s position could be satisfied by the expected unveiling of a new U.S. Mideast peace plan in August. But that will be very close to the September deadline of the U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood.