In his much-hyped speech on the Middle East scheduled for Thursday, President Barack Obama will argue that the region’s anti-autocratic uprisings and the death of Osama bin Laden have laid a foundation for democratic and economic change.
But the most urgent issue of the day will be unaddressed: how Obama, or anyone else for that matter, can prevent a new outbreak of violence between Palestinians and Israelis that could terminally damage hopes for peace in the region, and undermine the prospects for moderate change in the Arab world.
There’ll be plenty of talk on other issues, some of it consequential, some of it diversionary. Obama will unveil a multi-billion dollar program to aid the democratic transition in the region through economic reform. Around $1 billion will come in the form of loan guarantees; more will come from repurposed debt forgiveness; still more will come from international financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank.
The financial aid will be as much defensive as proactive. The political upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt have dramatically reduced economic activity, shrinking tourist income and threatening to derail the economies of those two countries, whose political transformations one senior administration official said Wednesday are “hugely important” for the future of the region.
Obama will also highlight new sanctions against Syrian leader Bashar al Assad, and adopt some of the tough language recently used by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden to rebuke him. That break from weeks of modulated criticism reflects the growing conviction held by members of the Obama the administration that the already weak Assad will not soon recover from the uprising in his country, only becoming more beholden to Iran and less amenable to warming relations with the west.
But what of defusing mounting tensions between Palestinians and Israelis? Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who recently reunited with Hamas, is pursuing UN recognition for an independent Palestinian state and will almost certainly get it in September. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, eager to secure U.S. and European opposition to that move, made symbolic concessions in a speech to the Knesset Monday. But Netanyahu also signaled he is preparing for conflict with the Palestinians by declaring that their primary and overriding aim remains the destruction of the state of Israel.
The risky Palestinian move for statehood, combined with Netanyahu’s continued reactive approach to peace, is already heightening tensions. “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign-policy address to the Knesset on Monday made one thing clear: He is preparing for a confrontation with the Palestinians,” wrote Aluf Benn Wednesday in Ha’aretz. Says one Israeli diplomat: “Any little thing can ignite the whole area now.”
That is the really urgent issue now, and unless Obama has a way to address it, lofty talk of regional democratic transformation will ring hollow.