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The Obama Objective: Middle East Peace

President Obama deserves credit for outlining a bold proposal for Middle East peace based on the 1967 borders between Israel and Palestine. Convincing the Israelis to accept the plan and getting the Palestinians to renounce terror and accept the state of Israel will be a collective feat deserving of another Nobel Peace Prize.

Barack Obama knew he was stirring up a hornet’s nest when he addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his landmark speech on the Middle East. The President had to address the issue in the context of what is now being called “The Arab Spring,” essentially, the movement away from despotism towards democracy among Arab nations such as Tunisia, and Egypt. One unintended side-effect of this movement is that Arab peoples, as they stake their claim for self-determination and popular sovereignty, are venting their anger at Israel, a nation many Arabs and Muslims assert has no right to exist and that is seen as a symbol of oppression in the heart of the Middle East.

President Obama is now faced with the greatest foreign policy challenge of his presidency: how to encourage Arab nations to continue their movement towards democracy while maintaining long-time US support for Israel. One policy seems to contradict the other because democracy for Arab nations must include an independent Palestinian state, which at the present time, is a threat to the security of Israel. In his speech, President Obama called on Israel to use the borders established by the UN before the 1967 war expanded Israel’s territory as the basis for negotiation with the Palestinians. Obama qualified his statement by adding that “mutually agreed upon land swaps” could be achieved to account for demographic changes that have developed since the 1967 war took place. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected Obama’s assertion outright, saying “that’s not going to happen” because the pre-1967 borders were “indefensible.” Netanyahu lectured Obama on the nuances of Jewish and Israeli history during his visit with the president at the White House. Both sides seemed more alienated from each other than at any time previously. It seemed to supporters of Israel that Obama had betrayed Israel. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney even accused President Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus.”

This week, Prime Minister Netanyahu will address a joint session of Congress. He will, no doubt, outline the Israeli position on such difficult issues as the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the rejection of the “right of return” for Palestinians wishing to resettle within the Jewish state. He will have to outline a vision for the Middle East that elevates the Palestinians to an equal negotiating partner while demanding that they commit to the existence and security of the state of Israel, something extremists within the Palestinian government refuse to do (namely the faction known as Hamas, a group classified by the US government as a terrorist organization).

It will be a monumental achievement for the Obama administration if the Israelis and Palestinians could reach a modus vivendi before the 2012 election. Even the start of meaningful negotiations with a commonly agreed upon starting point would be a considerable improvement over the current stalemate. Presently, Obama is in a lose-lose situation as he drags the Israelis to the negotiating table kicking and screaming while being condemned by the “Arab Street” as not willing to go far enough to stand up to the Israelis and their American backers in the form of powerful Jewish and evangelical Christian interest groups. President Obama must use all of his political capital to bring the parties together and make a breakthrough that has eluded very president since Harry Truman.

Image by George Cassutto
Copyright 2011
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