President Obama's decision to visit the Middle East this spring has focused new attention on what he might say about Israeli-Palestinian peace in next Tuesday's State of the Union Address.
Israel may be one of the United States' closest allies but a review of State of the Union speeches for the past 20 years finds that more often than not the issue of Middle East peace and/or Israel have not been mentioned at all.
What stands out from this record is a lack of consistent and continuous effort. We know only a sustained U.S. effort can bring these parties together. Peace advocates are hoping not just that Obama mentions the issue in his speech next Tuesday -- but that he embarks on a determined push to bring peace to the region and sticks with it.
It's easy to put forth lofty principles and ambitious goals, as presidents often do in these speeches. It's another thing to work day by day, week by week, month by month, to achieve difficult goals.
A look back at the past 20 State of the Union addresses, which encompass both of President Clinton's administrations, the two George W. Bush administrations plus President Obama's first four years, finds that the word "Israel" did not appear in 12 of those speeches.
Some of the other eight gave intriguing snapshots of the state of affairs in the region at the time. Other times, the president has merely repeated pious hopes for peace -- or expressed optimism that turned out to be completely misplaced.
For instance, after not mentioning the issue in 1993 and 1994, Clinton talked about terrorism in Israel in 1995, offering sympathy to the families of victims. One year later, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated by an Israeli domestic terrorist -- but the president made no mention of this in his speech. He also skipped the subject in 1997 and 1998.
In 1999, Clinton asked Congress for funds to help implement the Wye River Agreement to protect Israel's security, stimulate the Palestinian economy and support Jordan. The agreement provided for Israeli military redeployments from parts of the West Bank in exchange for Palestinian steps to combat terrorism. It was only partially implemented by both sides and broke down in mutual recriminations.
In his final State of the Union, Clinton did not refer to the Israeli Palestinian issue. Neither did Bush in his first two addresses. In 2003, he offered a single sentence: "In the Middle East, we will continue to seek peace between a secure Israel and a democratic Palestine."
After skipping the subject in 2004, Bush shared much more content in 2005, hailing the "beginnings of reform and democracy" in the Palestinian authority and asking Congress for $350 to support Palestinian economic, political and security reforms."
"The goal of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace, is within reach," Bush declared.
In the following year, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and Hamas won elections there. Bush called on Hamas to recognize Israel in his 2006 speech, which is still has not done.
In 2007, Bush offered the following bromide: "We're pursuing diplomacy to help bring peace to the Holy Land, and pursuing the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security."
The following year, Bush was optimistic just after completing a trip to the region:
"This month in Ramallah and Jerusalem, I assured leaders from both sides that America will do, and I will do, everything we can to help them achieve a peace agreement that defines a Palestinian state by the end of this year." But of course, as we all know, it didn't happen.
Obama was more restrained in his first speech to Congress in 2010, giving a brief one-sentence mention of the fact that he had appointed former Senator George Mitchell as his peace envoy. Mitchell lasted just over two years in the job.
Obama then skipped the issue in 2010 and 2011 and offered only a pre-election pledge in 2012 to stand by Israel.
More is required from Obama next Tuesday and in the next four years.
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