Analysis: Obama's new nuances

Anxiety in Jerusalem is running high ahead of Obama's speech in Cairo.

obama exactly 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
obama exactly 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
There is more than just a little anxiety in Jerusalem about what exactly US President Barack Obama will say in his much-anticipated and built-up speech in Cairo on Thursday, and his interview Monday with National Public Radio did little to relieve that concern. If anything, the interview increased the nervousness, because the US president added certain elements in the discourse on the Middle East that were new and, to some extent, troubling to Israel. The first matter of concern had to do, in the spirit of recent days, with the settlement freeze. Although Obama has called for an end to settlement construction in the past, specifically in his press conference last month with both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and later with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, this was the first time he had called for a freeze that included natural growth. "I've said very clearly to the Israelis both privately and publicly that a freeze on settlements, including natural growth, is part of those obligations [that Israel will have to meet]," he said. Up until this point, while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had called for a freeze that included natural growth, Obama had pointedly avoided using that expression. For example, sitting with Netanyahu at his side, he said the "settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward," and with Abbas he sufficed with "in my conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu I was very clear about the need to stop the settlements; to make sure that we are stopping the building of outposts." His more explicit choice of the words Monday might be because he felt Israel had not responded sufficiently to the call for a natural growth freeze coming from his secretary of state, or it might have to do with trying to soften up Arab public opinion before his Cairo speech. But whatever the reason, Obama's calling explicitly for a freeze that includes "natural growth" is a new and not insignificant nuance. At the same time, Obama did leave some wiggle room, saying the conversation on this matter was continuing, and "it's early in the process." Eyebrows were also raised in Jerusalem about his answer to the question dealing with his answer to those in the Muslim world who feel the US has blindly supported Israel. The president responded by talking about the special relationship with Israel that was based on the sharing of "many values," and the fact that Israel was a vibrant democracy, and that there were "huge cross-cultural ties between the two countries." He also added an element not heard before. "There are a lot of Israelis who used to be Americans," Obama said, in a not overly successfully phrase, since the overwhelming majority of those Americans who have become Israelis have retained their US citizenship. Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem gave Obama the benefit of the doubt, saying his choice of words was just sloppy and obviously not meant to imply that Americans who moved to Israel were somehow no longer truly Americans. Saying that the US has close ties with Israel because of the large number of Americans living here is a somewhat novel element in the usual explanation for why the US supports Israel. In fact, it seems more suited to Russian diplomats, who often explain Moscow's warming ties with Israel by saying it has to do with the massive Russian-speaking population that lives here. Obama then went on to say that part of being a good friend "is being honest." "And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory in the region is profoundly negative - not only for Israeli interests, but also US interests," he said. This also led to questions in Jerusalem about what exactly Obama was referring to. When and regarding what were the Americans less than honest with Israel? There was also concern about Obama's answer to the question of possibly engaging with Hizbullah and Hamas. Regarding Hizbullah, Obama confirmed some of Israel's worst fears when he seemed to imply that the US position toward Hizbullah - it is currently on the US list of terror organizations - might change if Hizbullah did well in the upcoming elections there. "Lebanon is a member of the United Nations," Obama said. "If at some point they are elected as a head of state or a head of state is elected in Lebanon that is a member of that organization, then that would raise these issues. That hasn't happened yet." By saying these words, however, Obama stepped on one of Israel's major concerns - that if Hizbullah wins, the world would not turn its back on Hizbullah, but rather deal with it as the democratically elected representative of the Lebanese people. Obama also added something new in the mix of the three conditions Hamas had to meet in order to be a partner for the international community. Granted, he said, Hamas needed to renounce violence and abide by previous agreements. But regarding the demand that the organization recognize Israel, Obama - in some curious phrasing - said they needed to "recognize the State of Israel without prejudging what various grievances or claims are appropriate." One diplomatic official said baldly that it was not clear what the president meant when he said Hamas' recognition of Israel should come "without prejudging what various grievances or claims are appropriate." The official did admit, however, that this formulation was new, and right now there was heightened concern in Jerusalem about all new formulations coming out of Washington.