A level US-Arab playing field

US President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last week devoted unusual emphasis to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this respect, the message was quantitative. Obama never mentioned the prospect of an Israeli-Syrian peace process and he devoted barely a sentence to the Arab Peace Initiative and little more to key issues like democratization and women’s rights. But the Israeli-Palestinian issue got huge play, clearly reflecting the US administration’s recognition of its centrality to the Arab discourse and decision to concentrate on it in the months ahead.

The speech also presented a calculated effort to balance statements deemed friendly to Israel with those friendly to the Palestinian and Arab cause in general. Israel got a "Jewish homeland"; Palestinians an end to the occupation, a two-state solution and repeated use of the term "Palestine". Hamas was told to accept the Quartet’s three conditions, but Israel was told to end the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Arabs were asked to recognize Israel’s right to exist, abandon violence, end Holocaust denial and cease using the conflict as a distraction from other problems; Israel was told to freeze settlement construction and remove outposts. Arabs were informed that the Arab Peace Initiative is "an important beginning, but not the end of [Arab states’] responsibilities"; Israelis noticed that Obama never used the words "terrorism" and "normalization" even as he talked at length about these very issue areas.

At a broader level, the speech appeared to be an attempt to cultivate the more moderate forces of political Islam, offering dialogue to anyone who is "peaceful and law-abiding" and, perhaps symbolically, repeatedly recognizing women’s right to wear the hijab. It barely confronted Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons and seemingly hinted at Israel in presenting a demand to eliminate all nuclear weapons (from the region? from the world?).

The speech also, not once but twice, referred to the need for Palestinians, with Arab help, to develop their "capacity to govern" and build the "institutions that will sustain their state". Herein lies an important message to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. While Obama insists that Netanyahu endorse the two-state solution and cease settlement expansion–two very problematic demands for this Israeli coalition–he also seemingly endorses Netanyahu’s vision of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process built from the bottom up, with special emphasis on institution-building.

Netanyahu can also find solace in Obama’s avoidance of presenting a major new Israel-Arab peace initiative that the current Israeli governing coalition would find hard to digest. That may still be in the works, particularly if Netanyahu fails to come up with a viable initiative of his own (he has now committed to present his own plan next Sunday). Meanwhile, in view of Obama’s demand that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist, cease violence and accept past agreements, the likelihood of the Palestinians fielding a united and viable negotiating team in the near future is low. That means that it will be extremely difficult to translate Obama’s vision into a peace process.

Obama set out in Cairo to reverse the damage wrought by eight years of the George W. Bush administration: to level the playing field between the US and the Arab world, between Americans and Muslims. This largely explains the extensive retelling of America’s interaction with the Muslim world, juxtapositions like Holocaust/ Nakba and the indirect comparison between the saga of blacks in America and the plight of the Palestinians.

Many Israelis and supporters of Israel are inevitably uncomfortable with these themes, which can be construed to adopt the Palestinian narrative without recourse to historic criteria and objective analysis. By the by, it is easy to ignore how this way of dealing with the issues also facilitated Obama’s exhortation to Arabs "to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past" and his recommendation to the Palestinians to adopt non-violence.

If Obama’s approach does the job of restoring American credibility and boosting his moral authority in the Middle East, the exercise may prove useful. This could happen if and when this US president exercises that authority at critical times ahead, for example to persuade the Palestinians to drop their demand for the right of return or to rally Arab countries, alongside Israel, against Iran and its allies.