President Obama’s May 19 Speech on the Middle East and the North Africa has presented the challenge as well as the opportunity to pursue the world as it should be. This speech contrasts with his address at Cairo in June 2009 where he promised to reset U.S. relations with the Muslim world. More glaringly, he has attempted this time to acknowledge the inconsistencies inherent in U.S. response to Arab upheaval.
Aspirations for freedom and democracy of the people in the Middle East and North Africa have risen ambitiously. The Arabs have revolted against oppression of their despotic leaders. Resultantly, two dictators in Tunisia and Egypt have been toppled. A few other Middle Eastern countries are still passing through people’s uprising. Turmoil has not subsided in the region. Tunisia and Egypt are transitioning to democracy with limited chances of success.
Against this background president Obama’s vision for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict carries an added significance. It is not certain how this protracted conflict will fit into the broader democratic movements in the region. Some view this scenario congenial to advance the peace process whereas others display more suspicion. Even the Israeli establishment looks susceptible expressing anxieties about possible abrogation of 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. This susceptibility is not without any reason because the future dispensation in Egypt is not predictable yet.
Change in governments and political systems are triggered by hopelessness and deprivation. Empirical evidence shows that democratic revolutions have been successful when people rise against the regime for lack of individual opportunities. However, the hard part of such transformation is the challenge to transition to sustainable peace. Successful democratic transitions require an expansion of economic growth and broad-based prosperity.
Perhaps Obama has toed a middle course in trying not to disappoint both the Palestinians and the Israelis. In so doing he has stressed that the status quo in the Middle East is not sustainable. He seems to demand concessions from the both parties to conflict. His demand that Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace is reasonable. Similarly, Obama has cautioned the Palestinians not to go ahead with their unilateral declaration of statehood and isolate the negotiating partner.
For the first time the U.S. administration has stated that the basis for negotiating the borders between the Palestine and Israel could be the 1967 lines. The 1967 Six Day War has changed the demography of Palestine significantly when Israel was victorious annexing larger territories belonging to Arabs. Even East Jerusalem was captured then. Obama has put the caveat saying that there should be mutually-agreed swaps of territories between the two parties. Considering the fact that about half a million Israelis live in Arab lands, it sounds logical.
If drive for lasting peace is to be treated more urgent than ever serious engagement of U.S. leadership in advancing Middle East peace is indispensable. Obama needs to match his words with action where he envisions a viable Palestine side by side with a secure Israel.