Why did Obama really have to talk about Israel on Thursday?

I’ve been musing about President Barack Obama’s speech on the Middle East and North Africa for the past week: I like it, I like it not. And I still don’t have a clue what to make of it after listening to him on Sunday as he addressed the influential pro-Israel lobby group, American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

No doubt that the president gives fantastic speeches. The one on Thursday had two parts. In the first half, Obama has so many good points about the change sweeping the Arab world. In fact, I liked what I heard so much that I now feel sorry that he actually gave the speech. Why? Friends and colleagues are convinced that he could not have ignored the Israeli-Palestinian issue — but I wish he had. That’s the problem. In these two speeches, President Obama missed an opportunity to make two distinct points, and that bringing Israel up on Thursday muddled his message.

If the president hadn’t talked about Israel on Thursday, that first part of the speech would have been covered differently by the media, deservedly so. “The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half-century after the end of colonialism,” Obama said. “Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression.” Exactly. And the fact that the president of the United States finally spoke in the same language as his Middle Eastern counterparts — as crude as a Columbia and a Harvard Law School graduate can speak up — is remarkable.

If President Obama hadn’t introduced Israel into his Thursday remarks and had focused solely on the Arab uprisings, he still would be able to make his case very strongly, before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Congress. But that didn’t happen. Netanyahu overreacted to Obama’s reference to the 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps. On Sunday, the president had to bring clarity to his remarks, and provided extra assurances to Israel to calm it down. “The commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad,” Obama said. And there is nothing original about that — as well.

There’s no point in arguing about something that’s already done. But the point that I’m trying to make is that the White House should have known that the moment president talks about Israel, it makes headlines. Israel claims more interest and energy than nearly any other country, and now, as the Middle East undergoes remarkable transformation, people still can not give up from tying Israel to everything that’s going on in the region. For a change, though, the current Arab unrest has nothing to do with Israel.

“Some nations are blessed with wealth in oil and gas, and that has led to pockets of prosperity. But in a global economy based on knowledge, based on innovation, no development strategy can be based solely upon what comes out of the ground. Nor can people reach their potential when you cannot start a business without paying a bribe,” the president said. “If you take out oil exports, this entire region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland.”

Those issues command far less interest than the latest salvo between Obama and Netanyahu. The question is how to help people move toward a better life. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict unquestionably needs to be settled peacefully — but it’s just one of the Middle East’s issues. Even if that conflict were miraculously solved tomorrow, the Arab world would continue to sink into a dark hole of malfunction, using their energy and resources to go backward. But the people are demanding a new way forward.

The dilemma is what did these two speeches accomplish? Did we really need this theatrical show, with President Obama first appearing to side with the Palestinians? Is this serving the people of the region who have put everything on the line to effect change? It’s difficult to have an answer. But what’s clear is that the ones who were actually supposed to get a hit by the first half of the Thursday’s speech are playing the three monkeys — deaf, dumb and blind.

But if Obama had waited until the weekend to talk about Israel, who would have been the first to react to his speech? Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah? Or would the Saudis have said something? Or would Turkey, the region’s rising power, have spoken up? The Erdogan government certainly has trafficked in rhetoric that’s spiteful toward Israel, which created a bloody ordeal last year off the coast of Gaza. This year, the organizers of that flotilla will repeat their attempt to break the Gaza naval blockade. Obama said nothing about the coming danger or shared any insider knowledge as to whether or how he is trying to avert this upcoming crisis.

The president did not provide a concrete map outlining the steps he would undertake against Syria, or how long it will take for NATO to depose Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Nor did he share any thoughts about an approach to Yemen or Bahrain. But while it would be great to have simple, clear answers about the path forward, there’s not always clarity about what to do next. Well, sometimes, the way is blurry and unclear. Also, Obama was addressing not only the American people, but the people of the region as well — people who are used to hearing a lot of empty talk. He may not have moved things around, but he did give a speech that could have inspired people. Yet, now, like always, everyone is talking about Israel, Israel, and Israel — again.

As a result, his remarks raise more questions, such as why he didn’t mention Saudi Arabia — at all. Many people fixate on the workings of the Israeli lobby, but the Saudis influence Washington in a much more cunning way. They do their business silently and the U.S. lets them get away with a lot. They’re a different kind of a superpower: the world’s biggest oil producing country.

Alan Gerson, who represented 9/11 families in their lawsuit against the Saudi government, reminded me that after the bombing of U.S.S. Cole, it was the first time that the U.S. government really made the connection between terrorist financing and al-Qaeda. They knew that the money was the oxygen that allows it to work. The question was where was the oxygen coming from. And they discovered that it was principally coming from Saudi Arabia. Vice President Al Gore, who was also the head of National Security Planning Group, authorized to send a team to Riyadh almost a year before al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They asked the Saudi authorities and the Saudi banks to shut it down. “The Saudi government did not stop the banks from doing it until after 9/11,” Gerson said. “It was too risky to allow it to continue afterwards.” This is just one example of Saudi behavior, totally separate from what they’re getting away with in Bahrain.

In brief, if Obama could not say a word to the Saudis because of their control over the world oil prices, he could have done without addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Thursday. On Sunday, it would have been a whole different story. In the meantime, the world’s media would have really been talking about what the president said about the Arab uprisings. But who knows, may be the White House purposely wanted to live this whole new drama with Netanyahu.

Categories: Huffington Post