Obama's gamble on the Middle East

After the killing of Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama could have been forgiven for taking a few victory laps and reveling in his bump in the polls. Instead, he chose to deliver a speech on the Arab Spring and closed it by touching on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By all accounts, it was a gamble.

Judging by the meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that followed the speech, it was a needless and unproductive gamble. Potential Republican challengers chastized the president for delivering what they called an anti-Israel speech. Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, however, took a more reflective view, as did Israeli Defense Minister and former PM Ehud Barak, who seemed to welcome Obama’s speech and saw it as a restating of the policy parameters in use since the Clinton Administration. Regardless, the speech delivered on Sunday by Obama at AIPAC (the largest pro-Israel lobby group in the US) had all the makings of a showdown with the U.S. president.

To his credit, Obama chose to repeat what has become a controversial position regarding the legitimacy of the 1967 borders, provided they come with mutually acceptable swaps. He was, in effect, stating in clearer terms what has been the goal of U.S. and past Israeli governments since the mid-90s: a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace, complete with the recognition of Israel’s right to exist and mutually secure borders. Former Bush Sr. national security advisor Stephen Hadley called it a good speech and, judging by the frequent interruptions for applause, Obama may have made some strides since Thursday’s “Winds of Change” speech.

Obama’s take on the Middle East is evidently based on Martin Luther King’s concept of “the fierce urgency of now.” The Arab Spring is not a temporary or passing fancy, nor is the growing numbers of youth in Palestine a temporary phenomenon. According to Obama, the emergence of technology as a driver of change has further bolstered the case for the U.S. to turn the page and shift the discourse in new directions.

The easy course for Obama would have been to put his re-election campaign front and center and to ignore the rapid change taking place in that part of the world. We know Obama is a hard-edged politician who is concentrated on 2012 and re-election. But a president must be able to do more than one thing at a time. In this era of sound bites and focus group-tested politics, his gamble may turn out to have been an act of courage and leadership and, by consequence, an act of statesmanship. Time will tell.

[John Parisella is currently serving as Quebec’s Delegate-General in New York City.]

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