TOPICS > Politics

After Obama Speech, What’s Next for Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Relations?

May 19, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
In a speech Thursday, President Obama called for support of democratic reforms in the Arab world and steps toward peace in the Middle East. Jeffrey Brown discusses the president's address and U.S. policy with reporter Mona Eltahawy, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and American University of Beirut's Rami Khouri.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And we take a broader look now at the president’s speech with Rami Khouri, a journalist and director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, Mona Eltahawy, a longtime reporter in the Middle East, now a columnist and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues, and Martin Indyk, former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and U.S. ambassador to Israel. He’s now director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

Rami Khouri, start with the stated focus of this speech, addressing the Arab uprising. What was your reaction? What did you hear?

RAMI KHOURI, American University of Beirut: My reaction was pretty positive.

I think when the president of the United States uses the words self-determination of the people, of individuals to describe what’s going on and says that the legitimacy of regimes is defined by the freedom of the people, that’s pretty powerful stuff.

He also said that these basic core principles which he talked about, democracy, freedom of speech, pluralism, rule of law, that these are universal and that they apply to all people, in the view of the United States, and that the U.S. would support this everywhere and oppose it when governments are pushing back.

This is pretty powerful stuff. But it’s at the rhetorical level. I think we have to say that this is very good speechmaking. And we hope that it translates into policy-making. It hasn’t done so before very much. But I think that the situation is changing and Obama is now catching up with the Arab people. This is a very interesting situation.

So, there were some very powerful statements, I thought, about the Arab Spring. Arab-Israeli issues, I suppose we will get to later.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

Well, let me ask Mona Eltahawy.

Was he catching up with what is happening on the ground? What did you hear or not hear?

MONA ELTAHAWY, Journalist: I think that President Obama was trying to catch up.

And remember that Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on Dec. 17. So, it has taken several weeks of trying to catch up. But I don’t think that the president really got there, because what I heard was a speech that perhaps was educational and was trying to realign U.S. foreign policy for a domestic audience.

But for an audience in the Middle East and North Africa, that is very fed up and has long been very fed up of a clear double standard in U.S. foreign policy, and a policy that would take the sides of dictators, at the expense of the people, I don’t think that the speech finally caught up, because, I mean, I heard many positive things, but there were many things that were glaringly missing.

For example, the United States gives the Egyptian armed forces $1.3 billion in aid every year. The Supreme Military Council, which runs Egypt right now, is endangering the very values and the revolution that President Obama praised today, because the Supreme Military Council in Egypt detains people, detains revolutionaries, tortures them, and puts them on military trial.

And then when it comes to the most glaring omission of all, and the country that is the worst offender and the strongest counter-revolutionary force, Saudi Arabia, the president didn’t mention it at all. President Obama mentioned Iran as a potential threat in Bahrain. But remember, Saudi Arabia has actual troops on the ground in Bahrain.

And when it comes to religious freedom and women’s rights, which the president mentioned — and I praise him for that — Saudi Arabia again is the worst offender, especially when it comes to its Shia minority and women’s rights.

So, I heard — for a domestic American audience, those missing sentences might not be important, but for the people on the ground, who have far outpaced the U.S., I think they will be disappointed that President Obama didn’t mention that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, all right.

And let me bring in — let me bring in Martin Indyk.

Who do you think he was actually addressing in this speech? And start to bring in the issue that he did talk about, the emphasis on Israel and the Palestinians.

MARTIN INDYK, Brookings Institution: Well, I think he was clearly addressing the Arab world, and, indeed, sending a very clear signal that he intended to align the United States, as Rami Khouri has suggested, with the people.

And there may not have been a mention of Saudi Arabia, but I can assure you that the Saudi royal family, and the king in particular, will not be happy at all with what they heard today, because he basically laid down the gauntlet and made clear, not just on issues like women’s rights, but on the whole issue of political reform, which the Saudis are opposed to, that the United States was going to be on the side of change, be on the side of the people, and that the status quo was unsustainable.

And, in fact, what we have here is a rift between the United States and our Saudi ally on this critical issue of political reform. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the president made clear again that he thinks a settlement based on a two-state solution is critically important.

But he went one step further than any president has gone, by making clear that the borders of the two states needs to be based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps that would incorporate the major settlement blocs into Israel, in exchange for Palestinian territory from Israel, and — and that Israel’s security needs would have to be met in that context.

So, he laid down two terms of reference for a negotiation that hopefully it will be possible to get under way again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and, Rami Khouri, so turning to that issue, does that step forward — how is that heard, do you think, in the Arab world? What — where does that leave things? And is it — is it enough?

RAMI KHOURI: Well, it’s a presidential speech. And presidential speeches are expressions, signals of what may happen. And we will have to see what policy changes may come.

But I would add to what Martin said two other things. He made, I thought, an extraordinary — opened up an extraordinarily important space on dealing with Hamas. And he did it in two ways. He said that the Arabs must respond to the legitimate Israeli questions about how Israel can deal with a unity government in Palestine that includes Hamas. He didn’t say that Israel should never talk to Hamas. He said that — he said the Arabs should make — the Palestinians should respond.

And he said the quartet should now look again at the impasse that it has with the negotiations. So, this was, I thought, incredibly important, meaning the U.S. is not going to accept the Israeli demand that the U.S. should block any contacts with the unity government of Palestine. And the U.S. is trying to forge, I think, some new ground here.

The other thing he did which I thought was important was to separate the issues of territory and security, saying those basic principles have to be agreed to start the negotiations again and then deal with the tougher issues of Jerusalem and refugees.

So, there is some new language and I think there are some new principles that are being articulated here. And I read this as Obama trying to support the self-determination of the Arab people fighting for freedom, for their freedom, and articulating that the United States wants self-determination from pro-Israeli forces, who have been dictating its policy for a long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

And, Mona, what did you — what did you hear in the Israel-Palestinian part of this? And how important is this issue still to all of these people in the Arab street that we hear about?

MONA ELTAHAWY: Well, you know, again, what I didn’t hear, I think, is much more important.

And I didn’t hear the president connect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ways to resolve it with what is happening on the ground, i.e. the revolutions and uprisings, because, you know, when you look at why Hamas and Fatah have signed this historic unity deal, why did they sign it?

Because they recognize that realities on the ground have changed across the region around them. They recognize that Mubarak, who was a major ally to the Palestinian Authority, is gone. And Hamas recognizes that Syria, a major ally for it, is — is — the regime there is being threatened by a revolution in Syria.

So, I think — and Israel now must also recognize that the reality on the ground has changed. And I think what we need to remember is that there is a long history of nonviolent resistance by the Palestinians that has influenced and inspired many across that part of the world in their own nonviolent uprising.

And, in turn, those nonviolent revolutions, especially Tunisia and Egypt, are influencing and inspiring Palestinians, which is what you saw over the past weekend, when young Palestinians began to march peacefully and were shot at by Israeli soldiers. So, the reality on the ground now is that Palestinians are looking around and saying, well, we deserve freedom and dignity, too. And they say this to Hamas, Fatah, and to Israel.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Well — and, Martin Indyk, just in our last minute, because we will now have with this visit from Prime Minister Netanyahu several days to be looking at this issue, but, more broadly, we reported earlier on that poll that shows that, in spite of the pro-democracy movements in the Arab world, U.S. standing doesn’t seem to be all that high right now.

Does a speech help? Or what has to happen next?

MARTIN INDYK: Well, I think the speech will help.

But — but I think everybody in the Middle East is skeptical about good speeches and want to see actions. And that’s what President Obama has been judged on in the past. He — he promised a major effort to try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so far, he hasn’t succeeded.

And he’s made clear in this speech that the road ahead is going to be long and hard. So, he’s not promising that. I think that so much of the reaction in the Middle East depends on how one side or the other reacts.

So, Bibi Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, tonight is very unhappy. He’s expressed unhappiness with this mention of the ’67 lines. And so, as a result, the Palestinians are saying they welcome the speech. It’s a kind of zero-sum gain in that part of the world.

And the more that the Israelis protest, I suspect the more that the Arabs will like it. In the end, what matters is not — and we can’t run a policy, a U.S. policy, based on an applause meter in the Arab world. What matters is how the president squares the difficult circle of promoting our values and promoting our interests at a time of revolutionary change in the Arab world.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

MARTIN INDYK: And I think what he’s done in this speech is rebalance in a way that — that does help to put him in a kind of middle way between promoting our values and protecting and promoting our interests, in a middle way between…

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

MARTIN INDYK: … protecting Israel’s security and promoting Palestinian rights of self-determination.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Martin Indyk, Rami Khouri, Mona Eltahawy, thank you, all three, very much.