One Step Forward

President Obama’s Middle East speech couldn’t possibly have — and almost certainly didn’t — please all of its potential audiences. His comments, however, were refreshingly honest in acknowledging the limitations of American power and influence and even broke new ground on a number of important subjects.

Obama returned to the theme that characterized his last major Middle East policy speech, on the Libyan intervention: the intersection, and often tension, between American interests and values. He wisely chose not to proffer a facile panacea that would almost certainly have proven unworkable.

Obama was strikingly frank in acknowledging that many Arabs feel the United States has pursued its interests “at their expense.” And he bluntly stated that “there will be times when our short-term interests do not align perfectly with our long-term vision of the region,” recognizing that there is no clear and consistent formula for resolving the ongoing contradictions between U.S. values and the aspirations of Arab peoples with some of Washington’s interests and alliances that are still considered indispensable.

Perhaps the most important change in tone in this regard was on Bahrain, where Obama condemned the crackdown in much stronger terms than the United States has to date. He called for dialogue but noted “you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.” Even more striking, he compared the persecution of Copts in Egypt with that of Shiites in Bahrain, a stronger statement than anyone had anticipated. His remarks implicitly recognized the limitations of American influence with its own allies.

This statement is unlikely to be welcomed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members, whose perceptions have become increasingly at odds with new American approaches to the Arab world, particularly when the Obama administration urged the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak over vociferous Saudi objections. Nonetheless, as the Associated Press reported today, despite these disagreements, U.S.-Saudi defense cooperation is expanding, including the creation of a new “facilities security force” to protect petroleum and other key installations in the kingdom.

Obama’s promise of debt forgiveness to Egypt and expanded trade and development programs across the region will be broadly welcomed, as will his commitment to work with Arab reformers and civil-society groups seeking change. In most cases, including Syria, he stopped short of calling for regime change, but suggested that Bashar al-Assad has to either reform or “get out of the way,” again the strongest U.S. statement thus far.

On the most sensitive subject of all, Palestine, Obama reiterated familiar U.S. policies in support of a two-state solution and criticized Israeli settlement building. This is noteworthy since the Israeli government just announced major new settlement expansion projects in extremely sensitive areas around occupied East Jerusalem, the continuation of a pattern of such announcements timed to coincide with major meetings with American officials.

Obama bluntly stated that the continuation of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.” At the same time, he warned Palestinians against efforts to delegitimize Israel and correctly pointed out that symbolic measures in the United Nations would not create a Palestinian state. Obama’s invocation of the 1967 borders recalls President George W. Bush’s 2005 statement that any changes to the 1949 Armistice lines would have to be agreed by both parties. Obama insisted that “Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state,” and suggested that the issues of borders and security should be dealt with first, and that such understandings would be the basis for progress on other permanent status issues. Neither side seems fully comfortable with such an approach.

Significantly, Obama did not close the door on working with a new Palestinian unity government, saying that the Fatah-Hamas agreement raised “profound and legitimate questions” for which Palestinians will have to provide “a credible answer.” This is a far cry from Israel’s blanket rejection of anything springing from the agreement, although it places the onus on the new Palestinian government to satisfy American and international expectations on its commitment to peace with Israel and the rejection of violence.

In essence, the vision of peace Obama reiterated was nothing particularly new for American policy, but it was considerably at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech at the Knesset. Netanyahu demanded as a prerequisite that Palestinians recognize Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people,” implying transhistorical and metaphysical national rights in this territory for all Jews around the world, whether or not they are Israelis. He virtually ruled out any compromise on Jerusalem, spoke of annexing settlement blocs and insisted on a “long-term IDF presence along the Jordan River,” ideas that are clearly at odds with Obama’s vision of a “sovereign and contiguous [Palestinian] state.”

The most important message Obama communicated on Palestine is that he believes a peace agreement is “more urgent than ever,” suggesting that in spite of the growing complications and the looming presidential election of 2012, his administration will continue to look for opportunities for progress.

There was a great deal to both please and annoy almost all concerned parties, and Netanyahu has already signaled his displeasure with the 1967 lines. But it was not a bad step forward: Within the constraints of U.S. interests and the limitations of its power, Obama offered a number of important commitments that can, in fact, be fulfilled, and that help to place the United States more on the side of the aspirations of the Arab peoples than it ever has been in the past.