In his long awaited speech on the Middle East in the midst of the Arab Spring, President Obama sounded frustrated about the lack of progress in the negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Positively, he spoke of change, of self-determination in the Middle East and North Africa, saying, "...shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region". But, he also said, "For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region".
Is that shadow to be removed? Beyond the President's frustration is the reality that Hamas and Fatah have reached an agreement, and that there is movement for the Palestinians to declare an independent state during the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, with many countries, including possibly France and England, formally recognizing Palestine. Countries can declare independence without universal recognition; Kosovo declared its independence with over 60 countries recognizing its existence; the Western Sahara is recognized by almost all countries of the African Union.
The President described his vision of where the negotiations should lead: two states with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. He proposed that the borders of the two states should be based on the 1967 lines. Nothing was said about the thorny issues of Jerusalem and the return of displaced Palestinian refugees.
The President's frustration pales in comparison to those who have lived and died during over 60 years of confrontation. Barack Obama recognized that the United States cannot impose peace on the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington and there is hope that the President will use whatever leverage he has to move the Israeli positions on settlements and Jerusalem. The Israeli reaction to the speech has been cold, if not icy. Netanyahu has snubbed the President before, and the upcoming Presidential election could influence how much pressure Obama will bring to bear.
The September date is not a deadline, but it is becoming clearer and clearer that the clamor for democracy in the Arab world is part and parcel of the initiative for a Palestinian state. President Obama must recognize that he cannot seriously speak of change, human dignity and democracy without a just solution to the Palestinian situation, and, as he indicated in his speech, that means a Palestinian state.
May 20, 2011