Obama plans address on Middle East after Arab spring, death of bin Laden

Laura Rozen

President Barack Obama plans to give a major speech on the dramatic shifts underway in the Middle East and North Africa, White House officials said today.

The address will outline Obama's vision for the region at a moment of unprecedented change that has redefined U.S. relations. At the beginning of May, of course, U.S. special forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan--and earlier this year, the Arab spring rebellions shook up the regional balance of power. Obama's address is also coming as two key Middle Eastern allies of the United States--Jordan's King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu--arrive in Washington to meet with the president at the White House next week.

It will be a speech about "political change in [the] Middle East and North Africa--not religion," Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, a key architect of Obama's foreign policy speeches, told The Envoy Wednesday in an e-mail.

"It's an interesting coincidence of timing--that [bin Laden] is killed at the same time that you have a model emerging in the region of change that is completely the opposite of bin Laden's model," Rhodes told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published Wednesday.

Obama will probably deliver his speech in Washington, but the venue and the date are not locked-in yet, Rhodes said. It's likely to take place next week, before Obama leaves on a trip to Europe on May 23.

King Abdullah is due to meet with Obama at the White House on May 17; Netanyahu has a meeting scheduled with Obama at the White House on May 20.

Netanyahu has also been invited to give a rare address to both houses of Congress on May 24, House Speaker John Boehner announced yesterday.

The Israeli leader will also address the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which gets under way on May 22. Some Jewish community leaders have noted that Obama's departure for Europe appears to have been delayed a day--giving rise to some speculation that he, too, may be planning to speak at the influential pro-Israel group gathering. AIPAC officials did not confirm whether Obama will attend.

Obama's address on the sweeping political changes underway in the Middle East will not take place at the AIPAC gathering however, U.S. officials and Middle East hands confirmed, but at some more neutral venue.

These sources also said that Obama is certain in his speech to reiterate the U.S. position that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be solved by direct negotiations between the two parties. But, they emphasized, next week's parade of Middle East visitors and speeches won't be the time for Obama to issue a major new U.S. push for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks--something that Obama's policy and political advisers have been intensely debating behind the scenes.

That potential speech, on the U.S. vision for the basis of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, is expected to be delayed until August, ahead of a Palestinian plan to seek a vote recognizing Palestinian statehood at the United Nations in September.

"I don't think there's going to be any confrontation or friction between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu," said former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fl.), now president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, and a close Obama administration ally on the Middle East peace process.

Some Middle East analysts said that while the Obama White House is keen on discussing regional affairs in a big-picture framework, one problem at least as perceived in the Arab world has been a lack of successful follow-up, particularly when it comes to U.S. efforts to advance the creation of a Palestinian state. Another is a perceived sense of diminishing U.S. influence in the region.

"One of the differences between now and [Obama's June 2009] Cairo speech is it's not clear a priori that what the U.S. president has to say matters [so much] to these audiences," said the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Middle East studies director Jon Alterman. "It's not that he can't get their attention; but he can't take their attention for granted."

"The bureaucracy tends to stress what the bureaucracy knows how to do," Alterman added. "And one thing the bureaucracy knows how to do is give a speech."

U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks--announced with fanfare at the White House last September--collapsed just three weeks after Israel refused to renew a freeze on Jewish settlements. They have been at a total impasse since.

Rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas recently surprised Israel and Washington by signing a reconciliation pact, bringing an end to their four-year feud and making way, if it holds, for Hamas to enter the Palestinian government. Israel has decried the agreement, and members of Congress have threatened to cut U.S. funding to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas joins the government without first renouncing violence and recognizing Israel's right to exist.

Still, some analysts say a Palestinian unity deal may eventually make a peace agreement with Israel more likely, given that a unified Palestinian entity can more legitimately speak for the currently divided Palestinian entities of Gaza and the West Bank.

"Ultimately, a reconciled Palestinian national movement is critical for a peace agreement," the International Crisis Group's Rob Malley told The Envoy Tuesday from Cairo, where he was meeting with Egyptian and Palestinian officials. "It will be complicated at first. But all sides have to make compromises. It always seemed an illusion to me that a divided Palestinian movement could make the kind of compromises necessary and have them stick and be seen as legitimate."

(President Barack Obama walks Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to his car outside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, July 6, 2010: Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)