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Obama's Speech Gets Mixed Reviews from Israeli and Arab Press

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President Barack Obama gave his second major speech on the Middle East yesterday, in which he outlined the U.S. government’s position on the ongoing transformation of the region. In anticipation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House and Capitol Hill, President Obama also laid out his administration’s position with regard to the future of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. While the speech was billed as a bold and principled declaration of Obama’s vision for the region, most editorialists and commentators in the region remained unmoved by what they heard.

In Israel, the official response from PM Netanyahu’s office was swift in rejecting Obama’s endorsement of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders. Reuters and Haaretz Service cited an Israeli official who said, “Netanyahu is 'disappointed' with disregard of Israel's demands….U.S. President Barack Obama does not understand the reality of Israel's situation, a senior Israeli official said on Friday, just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington D.C. ahead of his meeting with the American president…. ‘There is a feeling that Washington does not understand the reality, doesn't understand what we face,’ the official said on board the plane taking Netanyahu to Washington for talks later in the day with Obama. ‘The prime minister's tough response expresses the disappointment with the absence of central issues that Israel demanded, chiefly the refugee (issue),’ he added.”

Meanwhile, the Palestinian website WAFA reported that, according to PLO member Saeb Erekat, “‘President Abbas decided to convene an emergency session for the Palestinian leadership as soon as possible, and he will consult with our Arab brothers at the same time.’...Presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said that the official Palestinian response to Obama’s speech will come after the meeting of the Palestinian leadership and after consulting with the Arab leaders.” 

There were, however, some within the Palestinian political arena who wasted no time in criticizing Obama’s speech. Still, according to WAFA, “Wasel Abu Yousef, head of the Palestinian Liberation Front and member of the PLO executive committee, described the speech as ‘disappointing.’ He accused Obama of taking Israel’s side in his speech, saying that Obama’s position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has actually deteriorated. He said the emergency meeting will most likely evaluate the speech and consider the next step. Bassam Salhi, head of the Palestinian Peoples Party, said that Obama showed total bias toward Israel. He said, ‘Obama aimed in his speech to prevent the Palestinians from going to the United Nations in September and to put obstacles in the way of reconciliation.’”

A number of editorials were also quick to express their view on the speech. The Israeli Jerusalem Post’s editorial board took issue with Obama’s reference to 1967 borders and sided with Netanyahu’s position on the matter: “While there were no signs that he was threatening or pressuring Israel, Obama did say that a two-state solution should be based on the 1967 lines, a clear endorsement of Palestinian demands….He mentioned “land swaps” but, as in the past, was silent on the issue of an Israeli right to maintain the settlement blocs, in stark contrast to his predecessor, George W. Bush, who endorsed such territorial adjustments in a letter to Ariel Sharon....Obama also dissented outright with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s reading of the geopolitical map, claiming that the Arab Spring offered a unique opportunity to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Not everyone in Israeli agreed with the Post’s assessment. Some in fact felt that Obama had either been too soft or not gone far enough in his statements. For example, YNet’s Sever Plocker suggests, “The American president adopted the essence of the Israeli-Zionist narrative in his latest speech….I doubt whether we will find even one serving Palestinian politician who would be willing to accept the wording offered by Obama. There are elements and camps out there that for two years now have been trying to portray Obama as an Israel-hater who curries favor with the Arabs while disguising his communist tendencies. Yet none of the above is true, and the president’s latest speech proved it yet again. It was a speech delivered by a wide-ranging thinker, a liberal Democrat, a leader with principles and an Israel fan.”

Haaretz’s Gideon Levy, on the other hand, believes Obama’s speech “demolished Palestinian chances for statehood…. Benjamin Netanyahu may as well have canceled his trip to Washington: Barack Obama did the work for him, or most of it. But the prime minister is already on his way, so he should at least send to the White House a big bouquet of flowers. Netanyahu can sit back and relax. It's not that Obama didn't say clear, firm words on the Middle East; it's just that most, if not all of them could have been said by Netanyahu himself, who would then go on doing as he pleased....Obama didn't say a word about what will happen if the parties disobey him. This was the king's speech, but the king already appears a little naked. Considering America's weakness, and the power of Congress and the Jewish and Christian lobbies working on behalf of the Israeli government, the Israeli right wing can relax and go on doing what it does.”

Outside of Israel, most commentary seemed to share Levy’s assessment of President Obama’s speech. N. Janardhan on Al Arabiya doesn’t hide his skepticism: “Mr. Obama once again referred to a new beginning — ‘a new chapter in American diplomacy’….Yet, one also cannot but help wonder how many more ‘beginnings’ the U.S. will make in the region and whether or when these will have happy endings.... Mere economic and political transition, as Mr. Obama emphasized, will not suffice in the final analysis. What the states in question require is drastic change in governance style. How the concerned opposition groups and protesters transform themselves from being agitators to becoming administrators will determine how this latest ‘American beginning’ will move forward and towards a ‘happy ending’ in the Middle East.”

The Arab News editorial also leads with a searching question: “How can anyone trust a man that says he opposes Israel’s settlements but then vetoes the right of anyone else to do something about it? The more Obama talks, the less he is believed; the more he moralizes, the less he is trusted. His credibility is blown. Obama thinks that he can rebuild trust in him through his support for the Arab reform movement and by doling out cash. It will not work. Palestine is the one and only anvil on which trust in the United States can be re-forged — and on he showed yesterday that not only has he nothing to offer but that he has become the problem….If Obama wants our trust and friendship, then he must work on the one area where he has failed so disgracefully to deliver — Palestine. Cash is not an acceptable alternative. Arabs are not going to embrace democracy simply because there is American money attached. We do not want American bribes. The very idea taints Arab aspirations for change. Arab freedom is not a commodity that can be bought and sold. He can keep his cash. The US economy needs it more than we do.”

Similarly, in Lebanon, The Daily Star editorial suggests that, given Obama’s own history, there might be little behind the “nice words.…The president has a rare gift for pronouncing words that will one day look most grand when chiseled into granite, as this region heard in Cairo in June 2009 — the truth, meanwhile, is that he has not made good on the most resonant promises from that speech, similarly anticipated and received. The Middle East has heard hopeful words from an endless array of U.S. officials and seen little to show for it. The central obstacle has been Israel’s intransigence, and its reliance on its ability to alter U.S. policy to suit the Jewish state’s aims.”

For The National’s editorial board, “Mr Obama has missed an opportunity to lead. In recent months, Washington has quick-stepped to stay abreast of the changes in the Middle East, coming to support the popular movements that have won in Egypt and Tunisia and thrive elsewhere.... In the Middle East peace process, where the US truly can lead — where Washington has named itself mediator — it has been unwilling to act...As much as any U.S. president, Mr Obama has acknowledged the aspirations and grievances of the Palestinians, in words at least, since his landmark 2009 speech in Cairo. And last night he starkly described the reality for Israel: it has no future as a democratic state unless it changes course. Why, then, does Mr Obama refuse to be a tough, true friend to Israel — as well as lend substance to his words towards the Palestinians? Perhaps he bides his time ahead of US elections. Perhaps he is not willing to match actions to sentiments expressed in Cairo and since.”

The Peninsula editorial, however, was more upbeat about Obama’s speech: “In a significant shift in the U.S. approach, President Barack Obama bid to reset ties with a skeptical Arab world to counter criticism over an uneven response to the region's uprisings that threaten both U.S. friends and foes and his failure to advance Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Forcefully stepping into the Middle East debate, Obama endorsed a key Palestinian demand for the borders of its future state and prodded Israel to accept that it can never have a truly peaceful nation based on ‘permanent occupation.’”


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