President Obama has the opportunity to make history in Cairo on Thursday, the kind of history that President Eisenhower made when he rebuked the 1956 invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel. Eisenhower’s stand won tremendous goodwill for the U.S. in the Arab world. If Obama stands firm on his policy differences with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, he can win tremendous goodwill for the U.S. in the Arab and Muslim world.
In the run-up to the speech, Obama has opened space between U.S. policy and Israeli government policy on relations with the Palestinians and on relations with Iran. The degree to which Obama can meaningfully differentiate the U.S. from the Netanyahu government in terms of policy will be a key determinant of whether he can convince Arab and Muslim audiences that the U.S. genuinely wants a different relationship with the Muslim world than it had during the Bush Administration. In Cairo, Obama will have the podium in the Arab and Muslim world in an unprecedented way. If Obama highlights his strong opposition to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, his support for Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, his sustained diplomatic engagement with Iran, and his willingness to work with whoever wins the upcoming Lebanese and Iranian elections, he can change perceptions of the United States in the region.
On opposition to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, Obama has staked out a clear position. Last week, Secretary of State Clinton said that President Obama:
wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions.
Many Americans may not realize how fundamental stopping Israeli settlement expansion is. If the U.S. doesn’t stop Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, there can’t be a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, the Palestinian leadership has said it will not return to talks with Israel until there is a real freeze on Israeli settlement expansion. But more crucially, the settlements fundamentally thwart the prospect of Palestinian statehood – their key purpose. The settlements are at the core of the apartheid system in the West Bank: the checkpoints, the strangling restrictions on Palestinian movement and commerce. Let them expand and there can be no Palestinian state: a virtual guarantee for continued violent conflict, as George Mitchell noted in his 2001 report, and for a decisive verdict in the region that there is no change in Washington.
On relations with Iran, former NSC staffer Gary Sick notes that President Obama has rebuffed Israeli demands for a “deadline” on his diplomatic outreach to Iran. Obama said:
We should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction and whether the parties involved are making progress and that there’s a good-faith effort to resolve differences. That doesn’t mean every issue would be resolved by that point.
“That was no deadline,” Sick says.
Much is made in the U.S. of the fact that some Arab governments are leery of Iranian influence. While that’s certainly true, these same governments are not in the Netanyahu camp on Iran. They oppose military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, and they’ve signed off on diplomatic arrangements that included Iran, like the national accord in Lebanon that was backed by Iran, Syria, and the Gulf Arab states. When the Palestine Liberation Organization took a full page ad in the Washington Post last Thursday to highlight the Arab peace initiative, the PLO – which has maintained good relations with Iran since the 1979 revolution, and used its good offices with Iran after 1979 to free American hostages – the PLO stressed Iranian support for the plan.
Lebanese are voting in parliamentary elections on June 7, and Iranians are voting in a presidential election on June 12. In both cases, President Obama can score a win for the U.S. by stating clearly that the U.S. looks forward to working with whatever governments emerge from the elections. In all likelihood, neither election will dramatically change policy towards the U.S.
Hizbollah, which may eke a narrow victory in the Lebanese elections, has signaled that it will support a national unity government, and has already been in talks with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. As Secretary of State Clinton noted to Congress last month, the U.S. already supports a national unity government in Lebanon that includes Hizbollah.
Both the leading Iranian presidential candidates support diplomatic engagement with the U.S., and in any event, the key decision-making is in the hands of Supreme Leader Khamenei.
By stating that the U.S. will work with whatever governments emerge, Obama can affect the political outcome of the elections in a positive way, regardless of which candidate or party wins: the story of the election won’t be “defeat for the U.S.” or “defeat for U.S. diplomacy,” because the U.S. didn’t pick a side. Instead, each election will be an opening for U.S. engagement with the new government, regardless of who wins.