Amid chaos and change, Obama seeks Mideast imprint

May 17, 2011 - 5:13 PM
Obama US Jordan

President Barack Obama speaks to reporters as he meets with Jordan's King Abdullah II in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is confronting the wrenching change in the Middle East in a burst of diplomacy, hoping to save a crumbling peace process and addressing the Arab revolt country-by-country in a world now free of the menace of Osama bin Laden.

Opening a week-long focus on the Mideast, Obama on Tuesday urged Israelis and Palestinians back to the bargaining table against growing odds. His broader narrative will be delivered in a speech Thursday, when he will make his pitch that a region long defined by division now has its moment of opportunity because its people are rising up and risking their lives for change.

Speaking alongside Jordan's King Abdullah II on Tuesday, Obama declared, "We both share the view that despite the many changes — or perhaps because of the many changes — that are taking place in the region, it's more vital than ever that both Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table and begin negotiating a process whereby they can create two states that are living side by side in peace and security."

Yet his upbeat approach is being undermined by daily violence and by hardened positions that, in many ways, seem as unmovable as ever.

For the first time since uprisings began roaring across North Africa and the Middle East months ago, Obama will try to thread them together in way that's relevant at home and supportive of those seeking freedom abroad. He will do so amid questions about his consistency toward brutally repressive governments.

Put together, Obama's events this week show a president seeking to seize command of a Mideast agenda. He met with Abdullah on Tuesday, readied for Thursday's Mideast speech, looked to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Friday and planned to address a prominent pro-Israel group on Sunday.

The speech will present Obama's impressions of changes that, as his spokesman Jay Carney put it, have been more remarkable in the past five months than the past 50 years. Egypt and Tunisia overturned their leaders. Bahrain and Syria have used overwhelming force to crush protesters. Libya's move to destroy a rebel movement has drawn the United States into a conflict with no clear end in sight. And in the midst of it all, the U.S. launched a mission in Pakistan to take down bin Laden, the man behind the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

Yet the timing for the speech is problematic.

Even though the tracking down and killing of bin Laden offers context — the president is likely to frame al-Qaida ideology as the bankrupt past and the Arab push for rights as the future — the latest reality is a Mideast peace process in deep trouble.

In a dramatic new expression of frustration on Sunday, Palestinians marched and tried to breach Israel's borders from the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan on Sunday, leading to deadly clashes. The White House singled out Syria, where a government crackdown on protesters is growing ever more dire.

It was Obama who had declared that Palestinians and Israelis could reach a peace deal by September. Instead, negotiations have stalled again, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is pushing for the United Nations to recognize an independent Palestinian state over U.S. and Israeli objections.

Further complicating the situation are plans for a unity Palestinian government between Hamas in Gaza and a Fatah-dominated administration in the West Bank. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., and its charter calls for the destruction of Israel.

Obama also lost his envoy to the region, George Mitchell, just last week. He resigned Friday after more than two years of fruitless efforts.

"It's a tough time to give the speech. But they probably decided there's not going to be a good time. More events just keep happening," said Michele Dunne, a Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who worked for President George W. Bush's White House. "Every week is difficult in the Middle East."

Obama on Tuesday sought to set the tone.

Joined by Abdullah in the Oval Office, the president said that given all the changes in the Mideast, it is more vital than ever for Israelis and Palestinians to get back to negotiating two side-by-side states. "The United States has an enormous stake in this," Obama said in pledging again to try to foster a fair deal.

Obama will pursue that when he meets Netanyahu and speaks to an Israeli champion in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Yet the Israeli-Palestinian standoff will be just one piece of his Mideast speech Thursday, and the White House has offered no sign he will further define his position.

The president is expected to discuss conditions in specific countries. But his main approach will be to explain to a world audience — and to a domestic electorate more focused on economic concerns — how his government's approach is guided by support for human rights and political and economic reforms.

Carney said Obama will offer new ideas about how the U.S. can help improve the lives of people in the region as well as U.S. security. He would not elaborate.

The speech is expected to be Obama's most comprehensive outline of the U.S. stand toward the Middle East since he famously called for a new beginning with the Muslim world in a June 2009 speech in Cairo.

The Middle East holds so many strategic interests for the United States that all American presidents try to influence the situation there, often to limited effect.

"Clearly, the president wants to take a positive view that the United States is in favor of the kind of change that these revolutions are looking for — democratic change," Dunne said. "There's a tremendous pent-up demand in the Middle East for a better life. ... There's a sense now that the people there have had it."

A new Pew Research Center poll finds that the pro-democracy push in the region has not improved America's image there, and that animosity toward the U.S. is based on ongoing perceptions that the United States does what is good for itself — not its allies.