In Cairo, President Obama told (was it for the 100th time?) the story of his African father and American mother. This story has worked well for him in the American context, and he seems to believe that it will beguile the rest of the world as well. We shall see whether this experiment with autobiography as foreign policy has purchase.
But while some of his appeal to Muslims for common ground was certainly benign, there were aspects of the speech that may create more problems than they solve.
Obama has signaled to the Arab world that his administration is willing to pressure Israel about settlements in the West Bank. Asked before his Middle East trip about relations with Israel, President Obama told National Public Radio, "Part of being a good friend is being honest. And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative..." (Whenever someone starts a sentence by advising that "good friends tell each other the truth," duck.) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spelled out the president's policy bluntly: "He wants to see a stop to settlements -- not some settlements, not outposts, not 'natural growth' exceptions."
President Obama presumably wants Israel to uproot the 300,000 Jewish settlers who live in the West Bank to make way for a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. This is the "solution" to the Palestinian question that has been endorsed, formally and informally, by the last three presidents and most of the foreign ministries in the world. It has even been endorsed by many Israelis, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who offered 95 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza to Yasser Arafat.
The idea of handing over the West Bank to the Palestinians lost favor in Israel after Gaza was evacuated (at considerable pain) in 2005 because the area became a launching pad for missiles aimed at the Israeli heartland. But President Obama has a solution to that. It's nothing much -- just the wholesale reversal of Palestinian political culture.
"Palestinians must abandon violence," the President instructed. "Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. ... Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people."
Is that all? If Mahmoud Abbas were like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Palestinians were like African-Americans at Selma and Birmingham, things would be very different. In fact, if the Palestinians were not wedded to terrorism and violence; did not celebrate as heroes and martyrs those who blow themselves up in shopping malls and restaurants; were not beset with corruption, steeped in anti-Semitism, and drunk on maximal claims, (SET ITAL) there would be no conflict (END ITAL). Israel would have long since given up huge portions of the West Bank, as it gave all of Sinai back to the Egyptians.
And then there is the small matter of Hamas. One of Hamas' leaders proclaimed as recently as January that his organization "will not rest until we destroy the Zionist entity." Hamas' charter is explicit that "Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement." The charter also looks forward to the day when "The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdullah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him." Hamas controls Gaza, and, were it not for the presence of the Israel Defense Forces, would control the West Bank as well.
President Obama, who seems to live in a realm where wishing makes it so, waved his magic wand in Hamas' direction, too. "Hamas does have support among some Palestinians," he said, "but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist."
Good luck with that. In the meantime, Palestinian hopes for American pressure on Israel have been ignited -- with what conflagrations to come we do not yet know.