US mulling content of Cairo speech

White House officials reign in expectations that Obama will unveil a new, detailed ME peace plan.

By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
May 21, 2009 23:52
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obama exactly 248.88 ap. (photo credit: AP [file])

 
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American officials and Middle East diplomats are tamping down expectations that US President Barack Obama will unveil a detailed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan during his June trip to Cairo. Instead, they are painting the visit as one aimed at outreach to the wider Muslim world, with any new Middle East initiative coming later in the summer as Obama finishes consultations with regional leaders and other key players. While his speech on June 4 is expected to touch on broad themes related to Middle East peace, officials and observers are suggesting that a detailed proposal from the administration could well detract from the outreach effort. "That's obviously a part of the relationship with the Muslim world," said a US State Department official of the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort."But he wants to expand it beyond the Arab world to Muslims throughout the world." He noted that the speech is still being drafted. "The speech was initially touted just as a speech addressing the Muslim word," noted one senior Arab official, who added that his understanding was that a new American initiative would be announced only once Obama had had time to absorb the perspectives he gleaned in meetings with Middle East political leaders. That process began when he welcomed King Abdullah of Jordan to the White House in April. Since then, he hosted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday and will be receiving Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas next Thursday. Though Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak canceled his Oval Office visit, scheduled for next Tuesday, because of a family death, he will be meeting with Obama when he makes his speech in Cairo. "Once these assessing visits take place, then the US will see where it's at and one expects that something will be declared and issued," the senior Arab official said, pointing as others have to an anticipated roll-out of a framework for peace negotiations. "Both sides are thinking of a resumption of negotiations," the official said. "I don't think that there's anyone who believes that just reciprocal confidence-building measures outside of a framework has any hope of succeeding." Middle East diplomats and analysts close to the situation are discussing the possibility of the Obama administration expanding on the Arab League peace initiative, which calls for Arab countries normalizing ties with Israel in return for a full withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders and an arrangement on Palestinian refugees. "The general outline is to make the Arab initiative a working document and make it operational and use it to incentivize the parties in the negotiations. Right now it's a rather stale statement," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It's good as far as it goes - it's always good to have parties around the Middle East talking about peace," he added, but it doesn't spell out steps for the parties to take to move the process forward. "[Obama] has made it amply clear that he wants the Arab states to put something on the table; the approach is that for every step that the Israelis take toward the Palestinians, the Arab states need to take a step toward Israel," said David Makovsky, co-author of the forthcoming book, Myths, Illusions and Peace. Satloff argued that for such reciprocal moves to be effective, they would have to focus on improving Israel's security position or faith in the negotiation process, rather than consist of gestures - such as opening trade missions and allowing landing rights in Arab countries - that have been attempted in the past. Satloff also asserted that it would be an error for Obama to focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict in his June 4 speech when its stated intent is to build bridges to the wider Muslim world. "It would be a grave mistake for us to operate on the misperception that the world's 1.2 billion Muslims view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the weather vane of their relations with America, with other Muslims, with anything else," he said. "It's important to many people, to be sure. [But] we shouldn't work under the assumption, nor should we encourage the idea, that it's the number one motivator of Muslim identity and behavior." Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also contended that the Egyptian capital would be the wrong venue to announce extensive diplomatic policy positions. "It would make no sense to lay out a [detailed program] in Cairo. If you have a dispute between several parties, you go to a more neutral place to begin to address that dispute," he maintained. He added that Obama has indicated that this speech is about broader issues, pointing out that "he was talking about this speech during the campaign and I think he had something that he wanted to say and thought needed to be said, independent of the Arab-Israeli issue." Alterman did, however, say that he thought Obama would address the conflict in some form, explaining that when it comes to Obama's stated commitment to reigniting the peace process, "People are looking and saying, 'Is this all just talk?' He's going to need to show some sort of determination and some sort of specificity." Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, did say on Wednesday that some rolling out of Obama's Middle East vision would be included in his delivery because "not to address some of those topics would be sort of missing from that speech, so I think obviously that will certainly be part of it." One Middle East diplomat said that while he had not been briefed on specific content this far out, he expected it to include references to the road map and mutual responsibilities on both sides. He also thought it would be sure to call for greater Arab involvement, as well as stress the two state solution. Even so, an Israeli official emphasized that this is not a visit devoted to Middle East business, whereby skipping Israel would constitute a snub. "It happens to be a neighbor of Israel, but it's not a Middle East visit or one that requires him to come to Israel," he said. "This speech could have been done elsewhere so the place isn't so important to the topic that he's addressing." Israeli officials also aren't drawing any connections between the Cairo appearance and other stops on his tour, as Obama is also due to visit the Buchenwald concentration camp and Dresden in Germany before continuing on to France to mark D-Day. Obama's great-uncle was part of the American unit that liberated Buchenwald in World War II, and Israeli officials aren't linking the stop to Jewish outreach or other parochial concerns. Though some in conservative circles have criticized the itinerary, Satloff pushed back against the idea that it was an inappropriate schedule. "It should never be criticized when a president visits a country and decides that it's worthy of his time to visit a site of the Holocaust," he said. "We should welcome this as an opportunity to teach a vital lesson, not just about the importance of memory but a lesson on the need for continued action against genocide. This is a Jewish lesson, but not only a Jewish lesson." Alterman chalked up the route to banal considerations. "It's such a big task to move the president around. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it had to do with things like the availability of security." Indeed, the Obama team had indicated the speech would take place in the first 100 days of his administration - a milestone that has already passed - but couldn't settle on a place and make the arrangements in time because of logistical considerations.

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