As I noted earlier today I was one of the few Middle East specialists who didn't hear President Obama's speech, since I was chairing a panel at the time. One result is that by the time I read the speech and watched excerpts, the evening newscasts and others of the commentariat had already weighed in. So I'm going to keep my comments to a minimum.
Most of the headlines have focused on Israel and the reference to the 1967 borders as the basis for a settlement, with minor land swaps. This was, and is, quite simply what has been the basis for negotiations since the process really began in the Oslo process. It was the basic assumption behind Camp David II, Taba, and every hypothetical peace plan since. It's been the basic assumption for years. Netanyahu's immediate — almost instantaneous — rejection and the knee-jerk reaction of Mitt Romney and other Republicans (and Fox News) have made it seem as if this is a major shift in US policy and a gauntlet thrown down before Israel on the eve of Netanyahu's visit to the US. Yet these parameters were already negotiating points for Israel, whether under a Labor Prime Minister (Ehud Barak) or a Kadima Prime Minister (Ehud Olmert). So why is this the headline?
The speech wasn't even mainly about the Israel-Palestinian issue: it was about Arab Spring. Whether the focus on the Israeli issue is just politics as usual or simply a Pavlovian reaction to any criticism of Israel, this wasn't what the speech was really even about.
I recognize, of course, that the decision to give this speech on the eve of Netanyahu's arrival was a gamble, since in Israel at least everything will be interpreted through the lens of the Netanyahu visit. I don't know why this particular timing was chosen, though I suspect the White House might have hoped to generate some positive press in the Arab world before the appearance of Obama speaking to AIPAC and Netanyahu addressing the US Congress.
The actual message of the speech, general and idealistic as it may be, is being ignored in the US coverage. I think so far the overseas coverage is a little better.
But overall, I fear the reportage so far is a microcosm of US preoccupation with the Middle East: whatever happens, whether in Morocco or Yemen or Bahrain, is passed through a filter of "Is it good for Israel?" The fact that should be obvious to anyone who has been watching events is that Arab Spring has almost nothing to do with Israel, or for that matter with the United States. I say "almost" because many Egyptian protesters did criticize the peace treaty with Israel, and the long US support for Mubarak. But these aren't what the protests were about.
At a moment of profound and fundamental change, which the President at least acknowledged and praised, much of the US coverage is still focusing on an issue the demonstrators are not, an issue which has long dominated decision-making on not just Arab-Israeli, but all Middle Eastern developments.
One final thought: while I think it was a good speech, and is being distorted in the commentary, I also think that the pre-speech hype was overdone. No one, not a Cicero or a Cato the Elder, could have transformed Arab perceptions of the Middle East through a single speech on general principles, and lived up to the anticipation that was built up prior to the speech. Someone — the White House PR folks, the media — raised the bar so high that a certain disappointment was inevitable.
And that, for now, is all I have to say on the subject.