Disconnected and Dysfunctional
Reactions to President Obama's speech on developments in the Arab World were a striking reminder of just how deep and troubling the disconnect in the US-Israel-Arab relationship, and how dysfunctional politics in the US have become.
Given the historical setting: dramatic changes taking place across the Arab World; the killing of bin Laden; the floundering Arab-Israeli peace process coming up against the September deadline the President once suggested for the establishment of a Palestinian State; and the Republican Congressional leadership's invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress—the White House calculated that this was the appropriate time for the President to deliver a speech that framed a comprehensive vision of his Administration's Middle East policy.
It was an impressive effort, but the questions that gnawed at me as I sat in the State Department's Benjamin Franklin room listening to the President were "who was the intended audience" and "how would this speech be received by the many audiences who would hear it"?
If directed at an American audience, it was a useful speech. The President's analysis of the Arab Spring was thoughtful and challenging, as was his resolve to "reset" relations with the broader Middle East in the wake of profound changes occurring in that region. By embracing and reframing a "democracy agenda" and focusing on the need for economic development and empowerment, Obama shoved aside the neo-conservative clap-trap and Islamophobic nonsense that has seized much of the right and infected some of the left.
Our current "slash and burn" Congress may not be inclined to act in support of the President's initiatives, dooming them before they get off the ground, but it was important for Obama to challenge them to "put their money where their mouths are". Politicians may pay lip service to democracy, but when it comes to supporting the capacity building and job creation necessary to advance societies in transition, they turn their backs.
It was also a humble speech in which the President, at times implicitly and at other times, explicitly acknowledged the limits faced by US diplomacy in the region. He noted that the US did not make the Arab Spring, nor can the US direct its course. All we can do is help emerging democracies with resources and support.
As direct as the President was in addressing this democracy agenda, he was more oblique in his handling of the issue that drew the most post-speech attention—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was a valiant effort in which he tried to both lay down markers for Netanyahu while not creating a major confrontation with the pro-Israel lobby that is meeting in Washington this week (and before which both he and the Israeli P.M. are scheduled to speak).
Obama carefully parsed his words giving something to both sides. For example, he accepted the Palestinian argument that borders and territorial issues should come first, recognizing the '67 borders as the starting point, but then adding the need for "mutually agreed upon land-swaps" in deference to Israel's concern. He rejected the Palestinians’ efforts to seek a United Nations’ endorsement of their state, but added that the future Palestinian State should have borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt and be "contiguous"—a slap at Netanyahu's efforts to severe Gaza from Palestine and maintain Israeli control in the Jordan Valley.
He had, of course, much more to say, but most of it had been said before and should not have surprised or shocked anyone. But it did.
The mainstream press made much ado about the President’s speech, with front page headlines and commentaries galore either heralding or denouncing the President's referencing of the "pre-67 borders". They did this despite the fact that President George W. Bush had spoken of the 1949 Armistice lines as the starting point for negotiations—those lines being exactly what is meant by the pre-67 borders.
For their part, hardline pro-Israel groups became hysterical denouncing the President for ambushing Netanyahu, embracing a Hamas agenda, and condemning Israel to live within "Auschwitz" borders"! The 2012 Republican aspirants chimed in accusing Obama of being "irresponsible", "throwing Israel under the bus", and "betraying" or "disrespecting" our "only ally".
Meanwhile, in the Arab World, the speech fell flat. Not interested in nuance or the careful parsing of terms, the speech the Arabs heard was too tired and too careful, in no significant way advancing the discussion beyond the Cairo speech of 2009. Arabs wanted the President to do something. What they hoped for, two years after Cairo, were firm markers, a timetable for implementation and concrete steps the US would take to end the now 44 year long occupation of Palestinian lands.
And herein lies the problem. What the Administration saw as a necessary, though risky, step at home, ended up outraging hardline Israelis, becoming partisan fodder at home, and being seen as "too little, too late" by many Arabs.
And this is only the beginning of what will no doubt be a most troubling week for U.S Middle East diplomacy.
After their Friday White House meeting, Obama and Netanyahu each delivered remarks to the press. The President acknowledged differences between the two sides, which the Israeli Prime Minister then elaborated upon issuing his "No's": "No" to '67 borders because "they don't take into account ...demographic changes that have taken place over the past 44 years" (A remarkably antiseptic way of describing Israel's illegal settlement expansion!); "No" to Palestinian reconciliation; and "No" to the Palestinian "right to return".
All eyes will now be on Obama as he speaks before the AIPAC (the major pro-Israel lobby) meeting on Sunday to see whether he backs away from or fine tunes the positions he outlined in his State Department address. While AIPAC's leaders have cautioned their members not to boo the President, it will not be a receptive audience—unless he walks back from his earlier positions, in which case the AIPAC crowd might cheer while an already disenchanted Arab audience will become enraged.
Then comes Netanyahu's turn. He will speak before AIPAC on Monday and Congress on Tuesday—both audiences ready for whatever "red meat" he will throw their way.
There is a disconnect, to be sure, and a dysfunctional situation as well. All of this reminds me of Jesse Jackson's description of a complicated political bind in which anything you say "excites one side, but incites the other side". James Zogby is President of the Arab American Institute, and author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters, a book that brings into stark relief the myths, assumptions, and biases that hold us back from understanding the people of the Arab world.