x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Obama's no-win scenario after a speech that pleased no one

Reactions to President Barack Obama's speech on developments in the Arab world have been a striking reminder of just how deeply divided the US, Israel and Arab countries are, and how dysfunctional US politics have become.

Reactions to President Barack Obama's speech on developments in the Arab world have been a striking reminder of just how deeply divided the US, Israel and Arab countries are, and how dysfunctional US politics have become.

And this is only the beginning of what will no doubt be a most troubling week for US Middle East diplomacy.

After their Friday White House meeting, Mr Obama and the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu each delivered remarks to the press. Mr Obama acknowledged differences between the two, and Mr Netanyahu elaborated with three "Nos": No to 1967 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 between Fatah and Hamas; and No to the Palestinian "right to return".

All eyes will now be on Mr Obama as he speaks before the pro-Israel lobby Aipac today to see whether he backs away from or fine tunes the position 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 position. In that case, the Aipac audience might cheer but an already disenchanted Arab audience would be enraged.

Then comes Mr Netanyahu's turn. He will speak before Aipac tomorrow and Congress on Tuesday. Both audiences will be ready for whatever red meat he will throw their way.

Given the historical setting - dramatic changes in the Arab world, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the floundering Arab-Israeli peace process, the September deadline Mr Obama once suggested for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the US Republican leadership's invitation to Mr Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress - the White House has calculated that this was the time for a comprehensive statement of Middle East policy. It was an impressive effort, but as I sat in the State Department's Benjamin Franklin room listening to Mr Obama, the gnawing questions were who was the intended audience and how would it be received.

If directed at a US audience, it served a purpose. The president's analysis of the Arab Spring was thoughtful, as was his resolve to "reset" relations with the broader Middle East. By reframing a democracy agenda and focusing on economic development and empowerment, Mr Obama shoved aside the neo-conservative clap-trap and Islamophobic nonsense that has seized much of the Right and infected some of the Left.

The current Congress may not be inclined to support Mr Obama's initiatives, dooming them before they get off the ground, but it was important for him to challenge them. Politicians may pay lip service to democracy, but when it comes to supporting capacity-building and job creation, they turn their backs.

It was also a humble speech in which Mr Obama at times explicitly acknowledged the limits of US diplomacy in the region. He noted that the US did not make the Arab Spring, nor can it direct its course.

He was more oblique in his handling of the issue that drew the most attention: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was a valiant effort in which he tried to lay down boundaries for Mr Netanyahu while avoiding a major confrontation with the pro-Israel lobby.

Mr Obama carefully parsed his words to give something to both sides. For example, he accepted the Palestinian argument that borders and territorial issues should come first, recognising the 1967 borders as the starting point, but then adding the need for land swaps in deference to Israel's concerns. 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, which was a slap at Mr Netanyahu's efforts to severe Gaza from the West Bank and maintain Israeli control in the Jordan Valley.

Most of it had been said before and should not have surprised anyone. But it did. The mainstream press's front-page headlines either heralded or denounced the reference to the pre-1967 borders, despite the fact that the former president George W Bush spoke of the 1949 Armistice lines as the starting point for negotiations.

For their part, hard-line pro-Israel groups denounced the president for "ambushing" Mr Netanyahu, embracing a Hamas agenda and condemning Israel to live within "Auschwitz borders". The 2012 Republican presidential aspirants chimed in, accusing Mr Obama of being "irresponsible", "throwing Israel under the bus" and "betraying" the US's ally.

In the Arab world, the speech fell flat. Not interested in nuance or the careful parsing of terms, many thought it was too tired and too careful, in no significant way advancing beyond the 2009 Cairo speech. Arabs want Mr Obama to do something: firm boundaries, a timetable and concrete steps to end 44 years of occupation.

And herein lies the problem. What the administration saw as a necessary although 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.

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 the president of the Arab American Institute