Nice words, but …

Barack Obama, in his speech Thursday on the Middle East, earned praise for clearly aligning U.S. interests with those of the protesters in the Arab Spring, as well as his explicit support for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, but the key measure of his words will be whether he takes action to turn his oratory into reality.

The president expressed unconditional agreement with the aspirations of the masses of people who have taken to the streets this year to demand freedoms and rights, and he delivered a message for change to the individual countries upended by the popular protests.

As for Syria, he told President Bashar Assad to reform or get out of the way of Syrians’ desire for reform. It is unsurprising that Obama told Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh to pursue more genuinely his half-hearted bid at dialogue with his country’s opposition, but he gave the same advice to Bahrain’s royal family which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and previously appeared largely insulated from excessive U.S. attention.

Perhaps the most significant part of the speech, however, dealt with the future Palestinian state. Obama’s remarks must be viewed positively, not only for the statement supporting the 1967 borders as the basis for a peace deal, but also because Obama reiterated a commitment to the two-state solution and negotiated peace.

What he did not do, on the other hand, was lay out any blueprint for how the U.S., as the only realistic mediator for such an agreement, would guide the sides to a comprehensive settlement. Two other factors also mitigate the sunny feelings that the speech has engendered; first, Israel – and in particular the Cabinet of Benjamin Netanyahu – has already shown that it will perceive the speech only through the prism of its own narrow interests. Indeed, Israel also announced Thursday the construction of 1,500 new – and still illegal – settlement units in occupied Jerusalem.

The second cause for pause is Obama’s own history. The president has a rare gift for pronouncing words that will one day look most grand when chiseled into granite, as this region heard in Cairo in June 2009 – the truth, meanwhile, is that he has not made good on the most resonant promises from that speech, similarly anticipated and received.

The Middle East has heard hopeful words from an endless array of U.S. officials and seen little to show for it. The central obstacle has been Israel’s intransigence, and its reliance on its ability to alter U.S. policy to suit the Jewish state’s aims.

Obama can have the benefit of the doubt on Thursday’s address, but the only test of this latest rhetorical grandiloquence will be whether he translates his words into deeds – we need to see a concrete plan and steps being taken. The Palestinians – and the vast majority of Arabs – support Obama’s vision for a peace deal, and now it is time for the U.S. president to get to work and make that deal real.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 20, 2011, on page 7.




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