( This article is also archived at gorkhapatra.org.np )
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. Then Obama persuaded the Muslim world to act in harmony with the West. Now he has spent a good deal of time in discussing the Arab awakening. More glaringly, he has attempted this time to acknowledge the inconsistencies inherent in U.S. response to the Arab Spring.
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, who had been at the helm of affairs for about thirty years, 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.
President Obama has in most cases appeared to be evenhanded in dealing with crises in North Africa and the Middle East. Compared to what the U.S. approach had been to uprising in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Libya in the beginning of the people’s unrest, he has made efforts to reassure the Arabs that America cannot abandon the ideals of freedom and democracy altogether. In that vein he has cajoled the rulers in Bahrain to open negotiations with the opposition leaders, whom they have put in the jails. While the U.S. shows its inclination for the Yemeni president and the Libyan leader to step down to facilitate the democratic rule, he has asked Basher al-Assad of Syria to assist in transitioning power to the people.
Whether his words will be heeded by these recalcitrant leaders in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria remains to be seen. Moreover, the president intentionally avoids referring to Saudi Arabia, which is the most adamant of Arabs to allow freedom and democracy in the country. This clearly underscores the point that the national strategic interests of the U.S. have overshadowed her articulation of liberal international order. Had America been able to disentangle the commercial and strategic interests from its quest for democracy, the Arab world which is struggling to transform politically, would have been fundamentally different long time before.
Against this background president Obama’s outline of basic parameters for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict carries an added significance. The policy has been made public at a time when Obama faces the criticism that his administration has failed in the Middle East to promote American interests. 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 are suspicious. Even the Israeli establishment looks susceptible expressing anxieties about possible abrogation of 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. This susceptibility is not without any reason as the future Egyptian regime may be hostile too.
Definitively in the removal of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been bereft of a strategic partner whom the latter found accommodative and friendly particularly in dealing with the Palestinians. History testifies that the Palestinians had felt completely betrayed by the Egyptian president Sadat in signing the U.S.-brokered Camp David Accords with the Israeli prime minister Begin, which led to the bilateral peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The said treaty was primarily guided by Egypt’s desire to convince the Israeli side to withdraw from the Sinai peninsula which was lost in 1967 war. The Palestinian cause was neglected in negotiating peace between Egypt and Israel despite the fact that the origin of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the issue of Palestine.
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 with patience, perseverance and unity. 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. In absence of such opportunities, transition becomes complex taking unnecessarily longer time to come to fruition, the fitting example of which is Nepal.
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. This is the boldest part of his vision for Israeli-Palestinian peace. He has demanded concessions from the both parties to the conflict. His emphasis 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 by pursuing the vote in upcoming regular session of the UN General Assembly.
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. But Israeli prime minister’s rebuttal of Obama stand on border issue has regretfully forced him to clarify that he meant to negotiate a border that is different from the one that existed on June 4, 1967.
If drive for lasting peace is more urgent than ever as outlined by Obama, his unbiased treatment of the core issues dividing the Israelis and the Palestinians is indispensable. Obama needs to match his words with action because he envisions a viable Palestine side by side with a secure Israel. Considering this reality it will be morally unacceptable for the U.S. to try to block the UN vote to grant recognition to the Palestinian statehood in September.