The President spoke about the uprisings of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Tunisia and Egypt, Syria and Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. He said much that was inspirational and deeply supportive of the people of those countries. Yet he never mentioned the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. All the ennobling sentiments he expressed about the ‘Arab Spring’ do not, in fact, apply to Saudi Arabia where repression remains strong. The Saudis who are already furious at the U.S. for its pressure for concessions on the Bahrain monarch will continue to diminish their close ties to the U.S.
While the President was not explicit, his sentiments also apply to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. He did call on both to get on with it- finally to make peace. His most pointed remarks were directed against the Israelis. Facing U.S. voters in the 2012 elections and the reluctance of major Jewish donors to continue to contribute, his stance was a brave one.
The President spoke about the countries of the Arab Spring.
“Square by square; town by town; country by country; the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights.”
“It is the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world – the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity.”
“. . . the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has built up for years.”
“This lack of self determination – the chance to make of your life what you will – has applied to the region’s economy as well.”
“But the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and diversion won’t work any more. . . ”
All of these words are profoundly true. They apply not only to the countries of the ‘Arab Spring’ but across the region, including Saudi Arabia as well as to the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The President added some other thoughts even more true of Saudi Arabia than of other Arab countries.
“We support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders – whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.”
Of course, in Saudi Arabia none of these ‘universal rights’ exist.
“In fact, real reform will not come at the ballot box alone. Through our efforts we must support those basic rights to speak your mind and access information. We will support open access to the Internet, and the right of journalists to be heard – whether it’s a big news organization or a blogger.”
Saudi Arabia imposes strict curbs on Internet access, controlling access to vast numbers of sites outside the Kingdom by making all connections run through huge Saudi computers to which the regime downloads only those sites deemed acceptable.
“America will work to see that this spirit prevails – that all faiths are respected, and that bridges are built among them. In a region that was the birthplace of three world religions, intolerance can lead only to suffering and stagnation.”
Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of one of those three religions and there, only Islam is allowed to be practiced. Italian officials allowed a huge mosque, financed by the Saudis, to be built in Rome. The Saudis have refused to allow any churches to be built in their country.
“What is true for religious minorities is also true when it comes to the rights of women. History shows that countries are more prosperous and peaceful when women are empowered.”
Women are not allowed to drive a car in the Kingdom. How’s that for empowerment?
The Saudis already smart from the President’s criticism of the Bahraini monarch. This speech will lead them to seek to balance U.S. influence with closer ties, in particular, to China.
Clearly, the audience was eager to hear what the President had to say on this apparently insoluble – and heartbreaking – problem.
President Obama had been deeply humiliated by Prime Minister Netanyahu in November of 2010. Then, the President had offered the Israelis an additional 20 F-35s, without cost, to the 20 Israel had already ordered. (Of course the bill of $2.75 billion for the original 20 was to be paid for with funds from U.S. military assistance.) What the President had asked for in return was a 90-day settlement freeze so Israeli-Palestinian talks could begin.
Amos Harel, one of Israel’s leading defense and security correspondents said it was an offer Israel “could not refuse.” But Netanyahu did exactly that.
In the face of that snub and in the face of the positioning already underway for the 2012 U.S. elections, Obama was in a deeply uncomfortable spot.
He faced his dilemma squarely by coming down on both the Israelis and the Palestinians. But he saved his sharpest demands for the Israelis. These are the points he made.
“My Administration has worked with the parties and the international community for over two years to end this conflict, yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks.”
In fact, the Palestinians have not walked away from any talks recently and, to the contrary, according to WikiLeaks, have been begging for talks to resume.
“But precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.”
That is the most important message of the President and one that Netanyahu, struggling to keep his coalition together, cannot afford to take without committing political suicide. His coalition partners, largely more right wing, would bolt the government if he made more concessions to the U.S. or to the Palestinians.
“Ultimately, it is up to Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them, nor can endless delay make the problem go away.”
In other words, the Palestinians should not wait for the U.S. to batter the Israelis to move to talks. The 2012 elections and sentiment in Congress simply rule that out.
“The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”
Israel has been building settlement blocks deep into the West Bank, blocs that effectively create cantonments of Palestinian towns and villages. It also implies a land connection between the West Bank and Gaza.
“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”
Starting with the 1967 borders, long a Palestinian position, has, in fact, been the consistent U.S. position from 1967 and the U.S. vote in favor of Resolution 242 through the Clinton Presidency. President George W. Bush was more ambivalent.
“In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel – how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist.”
Obama stated clearly the Israeli position. The Palestinian response is that Israel does not recognize the right of the Palestinians to exist as an independent nation and that Palestinian recognition of Israel should come as the result of negotiations not as a precondition for them.
On balance, these remarks are going to be received less favorably in Jerusalem than they are in Ramallah. Obama will understand that more clearly when he meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu and addresses the annual AIPAC convention.
The U.S. and the Middle East
The President’s commitments to political and economic freedom and democracy in the Middle East have been long overdue. But the implementation of U.S. policies to advance those ends is the issue. Saudi Arabia and Israel-Palestine are the hard parts. Just where do we go from here? Or as the old TV ads had it, “where’s the beef?”