Expectations high for Obamas Cairo speech

President Obama will deliver an unprecedented speech in Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday, addressed to the Arab and Muslim world. Obama has said resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the top of his agenda, and his Cairo speech is expected to signal how his administration intends to move on the problem.

Last week, a team led by Obama’s special Mideast envoy George Mitchell met in London with a high-level Israeli team to discuss the contentious issue of Israeli settlements and outposts in the Palestinian West Bank

Also last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared emphatically that the U.S. wants a complete halt to settlement expansion. In remarks that commentators called unusually blunt and far-reaching, Clinton said Obama had made his position on the issue “very clear” to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their recent White House meeting.

Obama, she said, “wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. We think it is in the best interests of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians and others. And we intend to press that point.”

Obama’s trip to Egypt will be preceded by a stop in Saudi Arabia, where he will hold a private meeting with Saudi King Abdullah. It follows a serious of meetings at the White House between Obama and the leaders of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority/PLO.

The Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram reported recently that the Arab League and key Arab governments have been formulating a new proposal based on the 2002 Arab peace initiative. It undoubtedly came up in the talks Obama had with King Abdullah of Jordan at the White House. Obama may reflect this new initiative in his Cairo speech.

The 2002 Arab peace plan proposed that in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories it occupied in 1967, the Arab countries would recognize Israel and normalize relations with it. The new proposal, according to some reports, may speed up overtures to Israel by the Arab countries.

But the issue of the settlements looms large.

“It is the settlements issue where the Obama administration has clearly set out to move the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a groove from which both a negotiating process and regional movement can begin,” prominent Israeli political commentator Yossi Alpher writes at bitterlemons.org. Obama has “a clear mandate to pressure Israel” on the settlements, “and justifiably so,” says Alpher, a former Israeli intelligence official and adviser at the Camp David talks.

Objections voiced by Netanyahu and his supporters are 'pathetic” and “defy logic,” Alpher writes.

“Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Mitchell should keep up the pressure … to ensure that Israel does not overextend itself so far under the influence of messianic fanatics and weak leaders that it cannot remain a Jewish state.”

Palestinian commentator Ghassan Khatib, also writing at bitterlemons.org, observes, “Despite the administration's clear demand for a complete halt to settlement construction, Israel is still expanding settlements, increasing the number of settlers and consolidating its occupation. These opposing positions will ultimately jeopardize Washington's credibility.

“President Obama is in a unique position to make a difference in this regard,” Khatib notes, because of his high level of support from the American public, and in particular from the American Jewish community, and his 'vast popularity overseas.”

Columbia University history professor Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian American, says Obama, in his Cairo speech, cannot simply repeat “the well-considered (and generally well received) generalities” of his interview with the major Arab TV station al-Arabiya and his speech in Turkey earlier this year.

“These were a good beginning, but what is required now is far more difficult,” Khalidi said in a Harper’s magazine interview.

To win support from the masses of Arab and Muslim people around the world, there has to be “a real, convincing, and visible change” in U.S. policies in the Middle East, Khalidi said. It means, he said, “solid U.S. support for an end to Israeli occupation and the removal of settlements (not just halting their expansion); a complete end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq; and progress on winding down the American-Iranian cold war that has polarized the entire Middle East.”

suewebb @ pww.org