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Dr. Josef Olmert Headshot

Interpreting the Obama Speech

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President Obama delivered an innovative, comprehensive, visionary speech about the Middle East, but the reactions from official Palestinian circles as well as from some of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's political allies indicate the usual total disconnect. So, how are we to interpret the speech?

One way is to engage in a detailed textual analysis, which is bound to be burdensome, hence not recommended. I venture to offer another approach, taken directly from the world of sports: let's break the part of the speech relating to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or lack thereof, and see which side can claim more points in its favor, and then come with the final score.

Starting with Israel, they can be very happy with the fact that in this important speech, the leader of the free world made it very clear that the problems of the Middle East are dictatorship, poverty, corruption and deprivation caused by the Arab regimes which in turn try to put the blame on the US and Israel. For over 60 years, the Israelis tried, in vain, to explain it to the rest of the world. They can feel vindicated.

The president criticized the settlements, but in a much more muted language than usual, did not demand a freeze and refrained from defining them as illegal. Mr. Obama dismissed the Palestinian Reconciliation Agreement and strongly attacked Hamas for all the obvious reasons. One is left to wonder how can Abbas and Fayyad, the natural partners of the US and Israel, square the circle now, and have a government including the terrorists, while claiming their commitment to the peace process? They will need to use more than words, as actions are expected of them, and chief among them an unconditional readiness to resume talks with Israel, something which they resisted recently, conditioning it on an Israeli freeze on settlements, which the president did not demand.

Alongside that, the president ridiculed the Palestinian plan to go to the UN and get there a recognition for their state. The speech made it clear that the thorny issues of Jerusalem and refugees are to be discussed at a later stage and the Israelis are obviously happy about that. There was no word about the partition of Jerusalem and its final status, contrary to the expectations of the Palestinians.

Then the president was very concrete and firm in his call for protecting Israel's security interests, including a specific reference to the demilitarization of a future Palestinian state. With all that, the Israelis can claim satisfaction with regard to six important points.

And what about the Palestinians? The president expressed his strong conviction that the occupation needs to end with the inevitable suffering and humiliation inflicted on the Palestinians. Referring to refugees, the president mentioned only Palestinians and not Jewish. Clearly, the Palestinians liked to hear that. Then the president dropped the so-called bombshell: the support for final demarcation of borders based on the 1967 status quo, while advocating a swap of lands.

The very mention of 1967 is always a nice music in the ears of the Palestinians and not so for a majority of the Israeli people. No doubt a Palestinian achievement, and with it they can claim satisfaction with regard to three points. The interim score therefore is still in favor of Israel, something that may raise eyebrows judging by some of the immediate initial reactions there, which focus on the reference to the pre-1967 borders.

Here is a challenge to Netanyahu, as he prepares for his impending meeting with the president. He can succumb to the rhetoric of some of the hawks in his own party and those from his coalition partners and criticize the president for his position, but he can also act differently. Just few days ago, the PM declared in the Knesset that Israel should maintain the main settlements blocks under its jurisdiction in any final peace agreement. With positive and creative thinking, he can bridge the gaps.

As for the Palestinians, Abbas and Fayyad will have to reconsider the rapprochement with Hamas and give up on the September UN resolution about Palestinian statehood. So scoring points may be useful as an intellectual exercise; but one speech, even great as this one, cannot and will not bring the much desired peace. The president himself recognized it by stating that the people involved are the ones that could and should resolve the conflict. He could not be more right.