Obama Makes History in Cairo, Carefully; Netanyahu ‘Dodged a Huge Bullet’

In his major address to the Muslim world in Cairo today, President Obama once again argued that the freezing of Israeli settlements was a central element to achieving peace in the Middle East.

"Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's," said Obama. "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."

Obama's remarks come as Israeli officials are increasingly voicing their resistance to the administration's new tough line against the expansion of settlements, natural or not, and claiming that it undercuts preexisting understandings between the American and Israeli governments.

The explicit criticism of Israeli housing policy by the Obama administration in the past month is a significant shift in posture from the previous administration, which merely deemed settlement growth to be "unhelpful."

But today's speech, in terms of America's demands on Israel, didn't break much new ground.

According to Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center who has advised several secretaries of state about the Middle East, Obama's speech today might have actually pleased the conservative government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, if only because of what wasn't in it. 

"He and the secretary have already said settlements should stop," said Miller. "He could say no less than that in Cairo before the Arabs. The question is not that anymore. The question is what happens when there is no comprehensive freeze. So I don't see this as breaking new ground, he could do no less than he did. I would argue that the two happiest men in the Middle East today are Benjamin Netanyahu, because he dodged a huge bullet in terms of what the president might have said about Israeli-Palestinian issues and [Egyptian president] Hosni Mubarak, who I'm sure was nervous about what the president would say on domestic reform and democratization." 

Miller said that Obama could have gone much further in his criticism of Israel.

"This was not the 'breaker of icons' speech that he could have done," he said. "After all, this speech was given on June 4, 2009–that's 42 years to the day of the eve of the 1967 war, and he could have used that symbolism to talk about ending the Israeli occupation and, on the Arab side, talk about the importance of reaching out to Israel.  He did that but he could have much sharper with respect to anti-Semitic propaganda."

"Had he said nothing about settlements it would have been a blow to American credibility," said Miller.  "The only question is whether he could have gone further talking about borders, Jerusalem, refugees. Talking about permanent status issues and he chose not to do that."

Miller argued that the speech was most valuable in that it was a clear indication of Obama's views in the area, but, he added, "Our rhetorical position on settlements is already clear. The question is: what are they going to do about it? The administration doesn't appear to have a strategy designed to get them from where we are now to presumably where they want to go which is an Arab-Israeli agreement."

On Monday, Representative Gary Ackerman, a staunch defender of Israel in Washington, said that the Obama administration needed to do a better job defining exactly what it meant by natural growth expansion, and predicted that there would be a compromise between the Israeli and American positions.

"Settlements have proven to be one of the things that have proven to be problematic in any kind of peace process or getting any kind of peace. But I think there is room for compromise," he said in a conference call with reporters. "But I have to hear specifically from the administration, and I have not yet, exactly how they define their terms."

That, Miller said, could now be a problem for the administration.

"They've asked for a comprehensive freeze including natural growth, there's not much room to compromise," he said, adding. "The Obama administration would demand as a part of any deal the endorsement of a serious two state solution state solution. Having gone out on a limb now they have to have something to show for it. That's the real problem with this. I think they are in a box now." Obama Makes History in Cairo, Carefully; Netanyahu ‘Dodged a Huge Bullet’