Why would Obama plump for controversy over Israel?

Analysis: Amid ME upheaval, the US president chose to save controversial statements for the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

US President Obama and Hillary Clinton 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters/Jeff Haynes)
US President Obama and Hillary Clinton 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters/Jeff Haynes)
WASHINGTON – The ornate chandeliered and gilded Ben Franklin Room of the State Department, scene of US President Barack Obama’s much-hyped Middle East policy speech Thursday, has the distinction of being a significant venue for inaction rather than action.
In September, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who introduced Obama’s address, hosted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at this very same spot to launch direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
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But just as a façade of European splendor has been spread over the Franklin Room – despite its location in a modern concrete edifice – the ceremony held there last fall offered a veneer of significance for a process devoid of meaning.
The direct talks lasted just three weeks, believed to be the shortest round of talks in the lengthy history of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
But while Israeli-Palestinian talks have been stalled ever since, the ossifying Middle East has staged a remarkable awakening from its slumber. In countries almost too numerous to list, average citizens have done what to so many seemed unthinkable: They took to the streets to demand elections, economic reform, freedom of expression. In a word, change.
And they have begun to achieve it. In Egypt they threw off their pharoah in a matter of days; in Libya they are engaged in a bloody rebellion with NATO assistance; in Syria they are continuing to mass in the street despite the guns, dogs and even tanks arrayed against them.
The US, too, has been engaged in its own dynamic display. One quiet Sunday at the beginning of the month, a stealth team of Navy SEALs infiltrated Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani lair, took him and his defenders out, and stole a treasure trove of top secret data on al-Qaida’s activities and network.
Obama, his name once synonymous with change, took to the podium Thursday afternoon to relate to these very history- bending events. And then Obama breathed the air of the chamber in which he spoke.
The first four-fifths of his highly anticipated address were more notable for what they didn’t say than what they did.
He repeated the same American platitudes about the importance of the transformation taking place, and American support for freedom and democracy. But the teeth he gave to his statements were no canines.
“America must use all our influence to encourage reform in the region,” he declared.
Yet when he had the opportunity to speak out strongly against Iran and Syria’s treatment of their own citizens, he made do with repeating the same talking points his administration has been repeating through weeks of bloody protests.
He did not challenge the legitimacy of Bashar Assad, as many had expected, and certainly didn’t call for him to step aside, as he had with Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi.
“We need to speak honestly about the principles that we believe in, with friend and foe alike,” he admitted.
But that meant continued tough words for Yemen and Bahrain, with not a peep directed at Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco or other less-volatile autocracies.
The only substantive moves on his part were carried out or announced the day before – sanctions imposed on Syria’s President Bashar Assad, and a major financial package for Tunisia and Egypt to encourage a successful transition to democracy.
That cleared the way for the dominant story-line to emerge from his speech, to which he devoted the last fifth of his 45-minute speech: the peace process – the one realm where there has not been rapid transformation in 2011.
With Thursday’s prominent platform, Obama could have sought to reap further political benefit from the killing of Osama bin Laden. He could have placed an American stamp on the change in the region and staked out an aggressive path for molding it to the United States’ best interests.
He could have at least attempted to provide more rhetorical sustenance to those unarmed citizens facing the prospect of dying for their basic civil rights.
But instead, he chose to save his controversial, headline-grabbing statements for the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Is Obama channeling Captain Ahab on this issue?
If the Palestinian unity deal between Fatah and Hamas, the chaos at the Israeli borders Sunday, and Netanyahu’s own careful political maneuverings weren’t enough to tell him that his political capital would be gravely sapped in this direction, the trappings of the room he stood in Thursday surely should have.