Diplomacy: Out of Egypt

US President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo on Thursday marked evolutionary - not revolutionary - change.

obama mubarak cairo 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
obama mubarak cairo 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Jerusalem's fear and anxiety this week that US President Barack Obama would go to Egypt and deliver Israel's head on a plate to the Arab world failed to materialize Thursday, despite real tension between the two capitals over settlement construction. Obama went to Cairo and delivered his speech, but was not truly the bearer of any transformative new message regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He did not re-design Washington's policy toward the Middle East, did not launch any major new initiatives and did not rediscover the wheel. The US bonds with Israel were well known and unbreakable, the President said in Cairo, introducing the section of his speech dealing with our conflict. There is nothing new in that. What was new, however, and deserved Israeli commendation, is that Obama brought up Jewish suffering and the history of the Holocaust in the heart of the Arab world, where the Holocaust is often denied and Jewish suffering downplayed. He also had the gumption to decry "vile stereotypes about Jews," in a city in which these stereotypes flow freely. There was not much new in the empathy he articulated toward the Palestinians. Former president George W. Bush, in his seminal speech on the Mideast seven years ago this month, said that he "can understand the deep anger and despair of the Palestinian people." Obama, as is his wont, was much more poetic, saying that "America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own." Since it was Bush himself who put the whole two-state vision on the agenda, here, too, Obama was not breaking any revolutionary new ground. "The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security," he said, stating well-known American policy. What he didn't do was lay out the (elusive) way to get there. Obama was unequivocal in his condemnation of Palestinian terrorism, saying that violence was both morally wrong and a tactical error. He also stated explicitly that Hamas must recognize Israel, accept previous agreements and give up violence. And then the president turned to Israel, and reiterated another old truth: that the US was opposed to settlements. But here the wording he used was painfully convoluted. "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements, and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop," he said. This wording leaves itself wide open to interpretation. Is he saying that the settlements themselves are not legitimate, all of them, or only "continued Israeli settlements," meaning "additional" Israeli settlements? "This construction violates previous agreements," he said, leaving open the question: What construction? All construction? Some construction? And then he said, "It is time for these settlements to stop." What does"stop" mean? Stop the settlements, meaning, uproot them? Or stop settlement construction? That this paragraph is the product of months of deliberation in the White House over this explosive issue seems to indicate the degree to which US policy on this matter is still very much a work in progress, and something that remains to be dealt with between Jerusalem and Washington. THE SETTLEMENT construction issue will obviously continue to be a major irritant in US-Israeli relations, but Obama - in his Cairo speech - put to rest, at least to some degree, a feeling that had gripped some policy-makers this week: that Obama was steering US-Israeli relations in a completely different direction. "We are trying to carry on with business as usual," one senior diplomatic official in Jerusalem said on Tuesday, "but the feeling here is that something bad is happening." And with those words, the official summed up a week in which a seven-year honeymoon between Jerusalem and Washington - a honeymoon that began with Bush's Mideast speech in June 2002, in which he pulled back from Yasser Arafat - seemed to be coming to an inglorious end. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl pointed out Friday, after interviewing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, that whereas the Bush administration made it clear that the onus for change in the Middle East was on the Palestinians, Obama was shifting the burden onto Israel. The tenor of the signals coming out of Washington all week was that it was not terrorism and rockets that were holding up peace, but rather natural growth in the settlements. Obama, Diehl wrote, has "revived a long-dormant Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while Arabs passively watch and applaud." Obama's speech, however, indicated that this was not exactly what he had in mind. Diehl further quoted Abbas as saying, "The Americans are the leaders of the world. They can use their weight with anyone around the world. Two years ago they used their weight on us. Now they should tell the Israelis, 'You have to comply with the conditions.'" This week Israel started to feel that weight. So far the weight has been relatively light: a change in rhetoric, some trial balloons testing reactions to the idea that the US might start to take punitive measures, such as changing US support for Israel in the UN, if Jerusalem doesn't dance to America's tune on settlement construction. Some government officials were jarred by the new tone. Everyone expected a change in rhetorical tone from the Obama administration, but that did not necessarily cushion the blow when it came. And it came this week in the form of unremitting US rhetorical pressure on the settlement-growth issue. It started immediately after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was in Washington, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had been relatively quiet on Middle East issues until then, said all settlement growth must stop, including natural growth. And it built up to a crescendo, until Obama himself said the same thing in a radio interview on Monday, also adding that there was a need for the US to "be honest" with Israel. THE WEIGHT of pressure that Abbas alluded to was also felt in what Jerusalem believed to be trial balloons the US was floating through the New York Times, with an article this week saying that the US was weighing measures to rein in the settlements. According to the piece, the Obama administration was considering "stepping back" from support and cover for Israel in the UN if it did not agree to a settlement freeze. The juxtaposition of this piece in Monday's International Herald Tribune on the front page next to a picture of the bullet-riddled apartment of Hamas "militants" killed in Kalkilya by the PA also illustrated a dilemma Israel was facing: It was being portrayed as foot dragging on the settlement issue, at the same time that the Palestinians were being seen as taking on the extremists, even at the risk of life and limb. In other words, the Palestinians were doing their share; Israel was not. This is the subtext that began coming across loud and clear, and which was being endorsed in Washington. The New York Times article set off alarm bells in Jerusalem, since, for the first time, what was being discussed was not only Washington's opposition to settlement growth, but also possible punitive measures against Israel because of it. The article was also considered significant because it shed light on a sense in Washington that the Israeli public would topple Netanyahu if he was deemed to be endangering the critical alliance with the US. "There are things that could get the attention of the Israel public," the article quoted a senior US administration official as saying, adding that this sentiment "touched on the widespread belief within the administration that any Israeli prime minister who is viewed by the Israeli electorate as endangering the country's relationship with the United State risked political peril." But this reading of the Israeli public seems badly skewed, especially considering that just a few months ago the Israeli public went to the polls and firmly put power into the hands of the Right. There is also no consensus in the administration that bringing Netanyahu down would be good for the US. Some in Washington are arguing the opposite - that it is by no means a given that Kadima head Tzipi Livni would win in an election brought on as a result of American pressure. Furthermore, according to this argument, it would not be beneficial for the US if Israel entered yet another election campaign, since the diplomatic process would once again be put on hold for months as Israel campaigned, went to the polls and formed a new government. THE TRAUMA that gripped Jerusalem this week, however, was not relegated to the settlement issue. It had to do with something much more fundamental: whether the Obama administration felt bound by commitments the Bush administration made to Ariel Sharon in April 2004, including support for Israel's position that there would not be a withdrawal to the 1967 armistice lines, that Israel would not be asked to take in Palestinian refugees and that the US would ensure Israel could defend itself - by itself - against any threat or combination of threats. This letter, or premises contained within and assumed even before the letter was written, have been a central pillar of Israel's strategic thinking over the last number of years - thinking that guided Israel's acceptance of the road map in 2003, as well as disengaging from the Gaza Strip in 2005. If that pillar is now being shaken, as was feared in Jerusalem, the US-Israel relationship was headed for some major changes. State Department spokesmen danced around the issue of the letter all week, refusing to give a straight yes or no answer to whether Obama was bound by the commitments, and thereby raising real concerns in the Prime Minister's Office. BUT THEN Obama went to Cairo and delivered his speech. Change, one official noted, can be either revolutionary or evolutionary, and in Cairo he made clear that the change he had in mind was more of the evolutionary sort. By taking this tack - by not delivering a revolutionary jolt to Israel - he put to ease some in Jerusalem troubled by a difficult diplomatic week. For the time being, at least.