Obama may preempt PM's speech to US Congress

US president seeks opportunity to lay out new Mideast strategy; may use speech as platform for new Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal.

US President Barack Obama 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Jim Young)
US President Barack Obama 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jim Young)
WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama could deliver a major policy speech as early as next week laying out his new Middle East strategy following the US killing of Osama bin Laden and amid ongoing upheaval in the Arab world, US officials said on Wednesday.
A key sticking point is whether Obama, who gained a boost in global stature with the death of the al-Qaida chief last week, will use also his coming address to present new proposals for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, a source familiar with the administration's internal debate said.
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Obama spokesman Jay Carney, speaking at the daily White House briefing, said the president would deliver an address on Middle East policy "fairly soon" but declined to provide further details.
Obama, who will meet Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the White House on May 20, is considering giving the speech before he leaves on a trip to Europe early in the week of May 22, a senior administration official said.
The administration, seeking to counter criticism it has struggled to keep pace with turmoil in the Arab world, has been crafting a new US strategy for the region since shortly after popular uprisings erupted, toppling autocratic rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and engulfing Libya in near-civil war.
The killing of bin Laden in a US raid on his Pakistan compound will give Obama a chance to make the case for Arabs to reject al-Qaida's Islamist militancy and embrace democratic change in a new era of relations with Washington.
Though Obama has made repairing US ties with the Muslim world a key thrust of his foreign policy, one US official said the coming address would be "about political change in the Middle East and North Africa, not about Islam."
The date of Obama's speech has not been set, administration sources stressed. But whatever the timing, it is expected to seek to clarify what has been called the "Obama doctrine," a still-fuzzy prescription for dealing with Middle East unrest.
A complicating factor for Obama's speech is whether the time is ripe for him to present new ideas aimed at reviving long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Many Israelis are already unsettled over the implications for the Jewish state from unrest in the broader Middle East, and a new reconciliation deal between the mainstream Palestinian Fatah faction and its rival, the Islamist Hamas movement, has raised further doubts about peace prospects.
Obama's attempts to broker a Middle East peace deal have yielded little since he took office, but he has insisted there is an urgent need to seize the opportunity created by political upheaval in the broader Arab world.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on April 12 that the Obama administration planned a new push to promote comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace in coming weeks.
While there is little doubt Obama will use his meeting with Netanyahu to try to advance Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, it is unclear how hard Obama is willing to push for concessions from a leader with whom he already has strained relations.
That could risk alienating Israel's base of support among the US public and in Congress as well as the influential pro-Israel lobby as Obama seeks re-election in 2012.
Obama's launch of direct peace talks last year went nowhere and he is under pressure to forge a new initiative or face the prospect of the Palestinians seeking the UN General Assembly's blessing for a Palestinian state in September.
Netanyahu -- who will address the US Congress on May 24 -- is not likely to outline any far-reaching peace proposals, Israeli political sources said.
There had been speculation before the Hamas-Fatah unity deal that Netanyahu would do so.
But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's accord with Hamas, which Israel and the United States brand a terrorist organization, has reduced pressure on Netanyahu to act and diminished Obama's leverage for pressing him.