Talk about a serious “make it or break it” moment. Obama is going to make his speech at Cairo University tomorrow and anyone who takes interest in the Middle East region is eager to see how this will affect future relations between the U.S. and the Middle East. I’m currently in Jordan, where I had the chance to talk to some Jordanian officials and every single one whom I’ve met so far has expressed nothing but complete optimism for future U.S.—Middle East relations. Even on the streets as a group of American students, we’ve received an Obama shout out from a Palestinian local living in Amman. The Arab media is definitely reflecting this positive sentiment as well. While watching the Al-Arabiya news channel in my hotel room, coverage Obama’s anticipated speech and his trip to the Middle East is continual, with most commentators expressing optimism that the speech will define a new relationship between the two regions, which will then ultimately help resolve the Palestine-Israel conflict.
Why is this particular speech so important? As Minister of State for Media and Communication of Jordan Dr. Nabil Al-Sharif says, it shows Obama’s commitment to the issue. As Dr. Al-Sharif points out, the United States is facing a domestic financial crisis—the worst one since the Great Depression. Nevertheless, Obama is still spending significant time and effort on the two-state solution and it is still relatively early in his term. To many Arabs, this kind of dedication is something new and for a conflict that has been going on for 61 years, “new” is definitely a good thing.
Why should this speech be any different than any other speech stating that “we are committed to a peace and a two-state solution.”? We’ve even heard Bush saying those exact words. The first and most obvious reason for why this speech would be different is the fact that Obama is a well-perceived figure in the Middle East (so far). His language is much different than Bush’s in the fact that it doesn’t employ the “us” versus “them” dichotomy (like Pintak describes in “Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens”). Secondly, Arabs and Muslims themselves have something new to offer to the current peace plan: the Arab Peace Initiative, which is a result of a summit in Doha, Qatar. Under this plan, the Arab League joined the Organization Islamic Council (OIC) in order to make Israel, as well as the United States, an offer. In exchange for a successful two-state solution, 57 majority-Muslim and Arab countries would recognize Israel. Recognition would ideally mean good (or relatively better) relations, strengthened security, and increased trade between Israel and its neighbors. I asked Dr. Al-Sharif, as well as another senior Jordanian official, whether or not he thinks that this is a sufficient incentive for Israel to agree to a two-state solution. He said that it would be “logical” for Israel to agree—after all, the recognition of 57 countries (1/3rd of the U.N.) is a serious milestone that Israel could not achieve otherwise.
What’s in it for the U.S.? Dr. Al-Sharif and another Jordanian senior official describe the Palestine-Israel conflict as the one issue that has the greatest effect in terms of defining Arab and Muslim attitudes towards the U.S. In his book, Pintak also mentions that many groups use the Palestinian plight in order to campaign their agendas. Because it is an issue that highly resonates with many Arabs and Muslims, finding a way to connect the Palestine-Israel conflict it to their own goals is an effective way for some groups to gain support. As we’ve seen in the past, this doesn’t always benefit the United States. Basically, the argument stands that the United States itself can enhance its own security by committing to a two-state solution that doesn’t favor Israel over the Palestinians.
I don’t think Obama’s speech has to lay out a 1-2-3 step “plan for peace” and it probably will not. The main thing is for him to confirm his commitment to the peace plan and reaffirm the overwhelmingly positive and hopeful attitude that seems to have taken over much of the Middle East. Mainly, I’ll be watching out for any statement directly at Israel and their part in future peace plans or of any specific reference to the Arab Peace Initiative and his attitude towards it.