On May 19, I tuned in as many others did to watch President Obama’s speech on the Middle East. In the United States, much of the commentary on the speech has focused on Obama’s controversial call to restart the Arab-Israeli peace process based on the 1967 borders with land swaps. What about in the Arab world? For months, protests have been rocking the region, displacing long-entrenched governments and entrancing the rest of the globe with calls for peaceful transitions to democracy. Noticeably absent from those protests have been the usual anti-America and anti-Israel brick-bats. Based on reactions to Obama’s speech, I wonder if that is about to change.
Whether writing in English or Arabic, in domestic or international media, or from the Middle East or abroad, the main common ground among Arab reactions was that the United States is not doing enough to support the peace process—that is, to support the Palestinians. For example, Fuad Siniora, who was prime minister of Lebanon from 2005 to 2009 and who gave an interview at CFR recently, published an article in the international daily Al-Hayat calling the Arab-Israeli conflict “the fundamental issue” in the region and regretting that Obama’s speech was “something of a disappointment” on this front. Egyptian journalist Salama Ahmad Salama echoed these sentiments, saying in Al-Shorouk that “Washington searches for stability in the region by way of assisting emerging democracies in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, but true stability will not be achieved without empowering the Palestinians to obtain their legal rights.” As for the Saudi media, an editorial in Al-Riyadh, a main Saudi daily, focused almost exclusively on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The article liberally paraphrased Obama as saying that “‘the Palestinians’ efforts to seize UN recognition of their state will fail’” (Obama’s actual words were “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state”). Though Al-Riyadh vaguely referenced “the radical changes witnessed in the Arab world,” it made no mention of Egypt, Tunisia, or the bulk of Obama’s speech.
A Pew poll released shortly before Obama’s speech found that his approval across the region has dropped in the last two years. Moreover, people in the region are starting to say they don’t need the United States. A Jordan Times article asserted that “What is clear…is that Washington does not have the necessary political will to use its leverage to bring about peace in this region.” Egyptian journalist Sara Khorshid was even more forceful in her critique of Obama, saying that “for me, and for many Egyptians, [he] has zero credibility.”
The bulk of Obama’s 45-minute speech was devoted to explaining ways in which the United States intends to promote economic development and reform in the region. You might think that given the deep economic challenges facing the Middle East and its widespread problems with unemployment, these parts of the speech would be generating more debate. Instead, attention is focused overwhelmingly on the parts pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In coming months, expect to see more of this. As the Arab Spring gives way to the harsh realities of building new political and economic systems in Egypt and Tunisia, and counter-revolutions in other countries, the Arab-Israeli conflict will be used, as it long has, to deflect attention from domestic problems. Newly empowered Islamist parties will also seek to exploit the issue for political gain. Since the Arab-Israeli conflict continues to be the prism through which Arabs view U.S. actions, Washington’s attempts to promote economic reform will inevitably be overshadowed by this issue.