Laura Rozen has probably covered the growing surprise from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies about the Obama administration’s actions better than anyone:
Referring to Clinton’s call for a settlement freeze, Netanyahu groused, “What the hell do they want from me?” according to his associate, who added, “I gathered that he heard some bad vibes in his meetings with [U.S.] congressional delegations this week.”
In the 10 days since Netanyahu and President Barack Obama held a meeting at the White House, the Obama administration has made clear in public and private meetings with Israeli officials that it intends to hold a firm line on Obama’s call to stop Israeli settlements. According to many observers in Washington and Israel, the Israeli prime minister, looking for loopholes and hidden agreements that have often existed in the past with Washington, has been flummoxed by an unusually united line that has come not just from the Obama White House and the secretary of state, but also from pro-Israel congressmen and women who have come through Israel for meetings with him over Memorial Day recess. To Netanyahu’s dismay, Obama doesn’t appear to have a hidden policy. It is what he said it was.
“This is a sea change for Netanyahu,” a former senior Clinton administration official who worked on Middle East issues said. [my emphasis]
This helps set the stage for what appears to be one of the key elements of Obama’s Middle East policy – honest dialogue. As Obama explained in his interview with Tom Friedman in the New York Times shortly before his Cairo speech:
Obama, in an interview with The New York Times before leaving Washington, said that a key part of his message during the trip would be, “Stop saying one thing behind closed doors and saying something else publicly.”
“There are a lot of Arab countries more concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon than the ‘threat’ from Israel, but won’t admit it,” he said.
He then added that there were a lot of Israelis “who recognize that their current path is unsustainable, and they need to make some tough choices on settlements to achieve a two-state solution – that is in their long-term interest – but not enough folks are willing to recognize that publicly.”
And there were a lot of Palestinians, Obama said, who “recognize that the constant incitement and negative rhetoric with respect to Israel” has not gained them anything, and that they would have been better off “had they taken a more constructive approach and sought the moral high ground.”
When it comes to dealing with the Middle East, the president noted, “there is a Kabuki dance going on constantly…”
In his Cairo speech – as well as in his Middle East policies generally – Obama seems to be trying to do this. This has been especially noticeable – as noted above – with regards to Israel’s policy on the settlements. Fittingly, Obama expressed this best in his Cairo speech:
I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.
Obama here seems to sum up his theory of how political progress is made:
[T]o speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.
Congressman Barney Frank – in another setting – criticized Obama for precisely this sentiment – which, depending on what results we see on his different policies, may prove to be his Achilles heel:
I think he overestimates his ability to get people to put aside fundamental differences.
Frank was speaking about an intra-American fight – but in the Middle East the fundamental differences run much deeper.
But I think Frank missed back in January what many who have been critical of Obama’s Cairo approach missed in the immediate aftermath of the speech: Obama is not asking people to “put aside fundamental differences,” but to engage in civil and constructive dialogue – something which has been a theme throughout his campaign and was especially evident in his Notre Dame and race speeches. This is only worthwhile if one believes that a dialogue that is guided by the principles of honesty and reason leads us to understand that what unites us as human beings outweighs what divides us.
In Obama’s view – we may disagree – and disagree strongly on fundamental issues – but we cannot long demonize our opposition if we are engaged in frank and honest dialogue with them.
So it seems that the first step in unfolding Obama’s new Middle East policy is to clarify where everyone stands publicly – and he has started doing so by stating explictly his position in Israeli settlements and sticking to it.