In Obama's Speech, a New Approach to Middle East: Candor

Article excerpt

Did President Obama in his Cairo speech signal a new toughness towards the Arab-Israeli peace process?

Past presidents have opposed Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In Cairo, Mr. Obama said plainly that the US will not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.

Past presidents have supported the two-state solution, with Israel and a Palestinian nation living side by side. In Cairo, Obama insisted that each side needs to recognize the other's right to exist.

With these and other points, Obama was not so much making new policy as forcefully explaining the implications of policies that exist, says Frederick Barton, codirector of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"His speech had this element of candor that his immediate audience [in the Middle East] is not familiar with," says Mr. Barton.

Obama's 55-minute address was heavily promoted by the White House, both in the US and the Middle East. Given its importance, it is almost certain that Obama and his speechwriters considered carefully every phrase, nuance, and emphasis.

In general, the speech appeared to be an effort to get everyone in the region to take a hard look at themselves. Thus he talked about Islamic extremism, Holocaust denial, and the lack of women's rights in many Middle Eastern countries. But he also talked about Israel's responsibilities to displaced Palestinians.

"I think the most important thing people should take away from this speech was that the president really tried to hold the mirror up to all of the communities with whom he was speaking," said Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a published analysis of the talk.

As to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute - the pivot around which so much in the region moves - the speech did not reveal any big policy changes. …