How Obama Can Address the Middle East

07/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama's trip to Saudi Arabia this week to meet with King Abdullah has raised the expectations of Arabs so high that Obama might set himself up for failure.

Obama's five-day swing through Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Germany and France promises to engage the worldwide Muslim community "based upon mutual interests and mutual respect." The White House says he wants to share common goals to fight Islamic extremism and develop a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Already Obama has gone to extraordinary lengths to assure Muslims that the United States is not its enemy. He has put his Muslim credentials on the table, noting his background and the fact his father was a Muslim. He has opened the door to Iran for meaningful dialogue. He wants to celebrate our commonality, not our differences

It's not as if I haven't heard these promises before. President Bush certainly considered himself a friend of Muslims when he wasn't railing against Islamofascism. And his "road map" for peace looked pretty good on paper. I must admit, though, that expectations among Arabs and Muslims were not particularly high with Bush.

Obama, however, is going to have a tough act ahead of him. While his Cairo speech is highly anticipated in the Middle East, there is a whiff ceremonial grandstanding on his itinerary. He will visit Buchenwald to remember Holocaust victims and then on to Normandy to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D-Day. I'm sure that some Saudi ministers will persuade him to join in the traditional Saudi sword dance in Riyadh. It didn't do much for Bush's image, so let's hope Obama pulls it off.

This potential glad-handing makes Arabs nervous and annoyed. It's fine to engage in this protocol and unite the Ummah with an emotional speech. Saudis also appreciate that Obama has chosen Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy mosques and the heart of Islam, to discuss the Arab agenda before speaking in Cairo. It's a positive step towards reconciling with Muslims.

But Arabs expect substance right out of the gate. The primary issues of Middle East peace, as far as the U.S. is concerned, seem to be shifting away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and moving towards dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, routing the Taliban and stabilizing Iraq.

Yet these three issues simply treat the symptoms of the chaos in the Middle East and not the disease itself. For the Muslim on the street, everything starts with Israel. The saber-rattling we see between Israel and Iran is based on each country's perception of security. Israel's nuclear arsenal and its behavior in Gaza strike genuine fear in the region. If Obama wants to make an impression, he must focus on the core issue of Israel and Palestine. The ripple effect of Palestinian statehood and the right of return will help the U.S. deal with Iran, Iraq and the Taliban.

But now there is talk among Western diplomats that modifications might be sought in the 2002 Arab Peace Plan, which guarantees Arab recognition of Israel if it returns to its 1967 borders and gives Palestinians the right of return. The right of return seems to bother a lot of Westerners and Israel due to internal security concerns. But Arab leaders are not willing to negotiate this aspect of the plan.

Arab leaders rather see pressure applied to Israel to curb its destructive behavior. The habit has been to pressure Arab leaders to behave because the U.S. views the conflict through the lens of Hamas and Hezbollah's conduct. To the West, Hamas lobbing rockets into Israel is not conducive to peace. No, it's not. But neither is the Israel Defense Forces latest incursion into Gaza that left more than 1,000 civilians dead and many more homeless. If Arab leaders are to be held accountable for the actions of Hamas, then the same must be done with Israel. Arabs have given a lot of ground in the past two decades, primarily in watching Israel face international condemnation for its actions, but not held accountable in any meaningful way.

Israeli lobbyists have worked long and hard to protect Israel's interests, as they should. But it doesn't mean that Americans must capitulate to Israel under the threat of anti-Semitism.

If Obama is to reach Muslims, then he must risk this threat, knowing the American public will recognize that such charges are specious, and solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He should worry less about negotiating modifications in the Arab Peace Plan and more about how to get a recalcitrant Israel to move towards peace without it alleging anti-Semitism at the drop of a hat.

What Arabs are looking for in the Cairo speech and the visit to Riyadh are tangible statements from Obama that he understands the Arab point of view, willing to convey that message to Israel, and demand that Israel step up to the plate and show some movement to get the plan approved. A timeline that is enforced and doesn't collapse after the first hiccup from Hamas or the next outrageous statement from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a vital component to Obama's road to peace.