Obama Won Hearts, Now It’s Time to Win Minds

In his 4 June 2009 speech in Cairo, President Barack Hussein Obama won the hearts of Muslims and Arabs with his acknowledgment of civilization’s debt to Islam and emphasis on the "common principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings." The president’s call for a new beginning based on an "effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground" as well as his ease with quoting the Koran drew genuine applause. From the reaction to the speech, it seems that President Obama had won his audience, those in the Great Hall and beyond, at "As Salamu Alaykum." But now comes the hard part, wining their minds with a policy on Israel and Palestine that will not be swayed by the domestic concerns for survival by either government.

The task won’t be easy. President Obama and his top diplomats made statements on Israeli settlements and Palestinian statehood that he and his administration cannot retreat from. To have the administration’s position on settlements clearly articulated in a speech that was designed to signal a new beginning and with an overall theme that "in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and too often are only said behind closed doors," means that nothing short of a settlement freeze would be a failure for President Obama.

A principled U.S. position on settlements is not something that Israel is accustomed to and not surprisingly, soon after President Obama’s speech, Israel announced that its prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu will deliver a policy speech. The Israeli strategy to dealing with a United States that now acts like a diplomatic superpower which recognizes the legitimate aspirations of two peoples rather than one; that expects both sides to respect agreements, international legitimacy and to live up to their mutual responsibilities, will have to be a strategy that goes beyond the unchanging argument that if you push Israel too much, its fragile government coalition will collapse. While this has worked in the past and U.S. policy has been tweaked to accommodate the internal coalition concerns of Israeli prime ministers, this may not be a consideration for an Obama administration. In a recent conference call with a state department official, it was clear that the U.S. will not acc ept this argument and that it expects all leaders to manage their governments. Amjad Atallah, the director of the Middle East Task Force in the New America Foundation, worries that Israel’s strategy will be to short-circuit the United States. Atallah explained that Netanyahu, to deflate U.S. pressure off of Israel, may invite the Palestinian Authority to bilateral, back-channel negotiations, similar to those of the Oslo talks.

Should Israel’s strategy to deflate U.S. pressure fail, the question remains, how will the U.S. deal with Israel’s refusal to stop settlement expansion? Will there be consequences for Israel? The answer to that is most likely being debated behind closed doors, not yet ready to be said openly. However, whatever that course of action will be, it will have to remain true to the spirit of the Cairo speech.