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Mideast Communications Chaos

A Commentary By Tony Blankley

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The president's speech last week, which was described by the White House in advance as a speech intended to reach out to the Muslim world, will probably go down as one of the least well-understood major presidential speeches in modern memory. Confusion concerning the president's words and intent cut across the lines of Jews, Christians and Muslims, Democrats and Republicans, neocons and paleocons, friends and foes of Israel, and friends and foes of the president.

For many serious commentators, the confusion lies on what the president meant by his statement that "We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states." Was this a shift of policy, no shift or a critical increase in U.S. presidential pressure on Israel in future peace negotiations?

A few days before the speech, the president's press secretary said reference to the 1967 borders would not be in the speech. A day before the speech, the Israeli prime minster was privately informed by the administration that it would be in the speech. He privately informed Secretary of State Clinton -- before the presidential speech -- of his profound opposition to that statement -- and publicly condemned it after the speech and as he was getting on his plane to fly to Washington. The remarks stayed in the speech, but were placed just a few paragraphs from the end of a speech that was mostly about the "Arab Spring" and President Obama's current view of it.

At the White House photo op after the two-hour meeting between the prime minister and the president, Netanyahu severely chastised the President for his reference to 1967 borders. Many supporters of Israel both in the U.S. and abroad (including the Canadian government) echoed Netanyahu's grave concern about the 1967 borders statement. Even George Mitchell, the president's Mideast peace envoy (and not considered pro-Israel) said that the 1967 border emphasis by the president was wrong.

However, seeing -- or claiming to see -- vindication of their efforts, former foreign policy aides to President Bush (and conservative commentators who supported Bush's "freedom initiative" in the Middle East) rushed out to congratulate Obama for switching from his "realist" policy of befriending Muslim dictatorial regimes such as Iran's to what they claimed was Obama's endorsement of the Bush Middle East policy.

Yet other supporters of Israel were indifferent to the 1967 borders statement but gravely concerned about the central part of the speech concerning Muslim "outreach."

Distinguished scholar Barry Rubin's statement is most noteworthy: "President Barack Obama's speech on Middle East policy did more damage to U.S.-Israel relations than anything said by any previous president during the almost forty-year alliance between the two countries. Yet, ironically, the speech wasn't intended to be on Israel at all; Obama apparently thought he was being friendly toward Israel; and the point that created the biggest controversy (1967 borders) was something that the president didn't even say.

"The crisis, then, was caused by three factors: The ignorance of the Obama Administration over the issues involved; Obama's chronic lack of friendliness toward Israel; and his refusal to recognize the threat from revolutionary Islamism.

"His speech mainly focused on a totally uncritical evaluation of the current upheavals in the Arab world. The idea that Egypt is about to become a radical state, that the Egypt-Israel treaty is jeopardized, and that Israel is now facing the prospect of a renewed enemy to its southwest with twelve times its own population simply has not entered Obama's calculations."

Harsh criticism of a yet different perception came from The Washington Post -- a vehement endorser of Obama for President 2012. The Post editorial after the speech identified Obama's intention as "to persuade Mr. Abbas to give up his U.N. bid and return to negotiations with Israel. To do so, he endorsed one of the conditions Palestinians have tried to set for talks: that they be based on Israel's 1967 border lines, with swaps of land to accommodate large Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This is not a big change in U.S. policy. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, along with previous Israeli governments, have supported the approach.

"But Mr. Netanyahu has not yet signed on, and so Mr. Obama's decision to confront him with a formal U.S. embrace of the idea, with only a few hours' warning, ensured a blowup. Israeli bad feeling was exacerbated by Mr. Obama's failure to repeat past U.S. positions -- in particular, an explicit stance against the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

"Mr. Obama should have learned from his past diplomatic failures -- including his attempt to force a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank -- that initiating a conflict with Israel will thwart rather than advance peace negotiations."

In the president's Sunday speech to AIPAC, the major media generally characterized it as shifting tone, more conciliatory, clarifying, more explicitly supportive of Israel, etc, than the president's main speech last week.

The questions that remain unanswered for many is whether the president understood the diplomatic and political impact of his words (in which case, his tonal backpedaling at the AIPAC speech was anticipated and all part of a shrewd master narrative) or whether the impact of his words was inadvertent and based on inexperience or poor judgment. Fascinatingly, both the president's friends and foes are on both sides of those questions.

Tony Blankley is executive vice president of Edelman public relations in Washington. E-mail him at TonyBlankley@gmail.com.

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