EDITORIAL/THE NEW YORK TIMES/May 19, 2011
We have been waiting for President Obama to lay out his vision of the promises and challenges of the upheaval in the Arab world. His speech on Thursday did not go far enough — there was no game-changing proposal on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — but he did promise strong support to those yearning for freedom and goaded American allies, including Israel, to take the political risks that are essential for peaceful change and the only way to build a lasting peace.
His strong words about democracy — including references to the “inalienable rights” of all people — were inspiring but balanced with realpolitik. While acknowledging that Bahrain, home of the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet, is an important ally, he criticized the monarchy for using “mass arrests and brute force” against political opponents.
The two big questions now are: How quickly will Washington deliver promised economic support to the new governments in Egypt and Tunisia? And how much harder is Mr. Obama willing to push Israel and the Palestinians to start serious peace negotiations?
There was much hand-wringing in Israel over the president’s call for a two-state solution based on “the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” The language was new, but it was not a major change in American policy. It must not become another excuse for inaction.
When Mr. Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Friday, he needs to be even blunter about how a continued stalemate is not in Israel’s interest and will only feed extremism.
Mr. Obama raised high expectations in 2009 when he promised a “new beginning” with the Arab world. That ardor cooled as Middle East peace talks stalled, and Mr. Obama stuck too long with Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. On Thursday, he correctly identified the source of the region’s unrest — “power has been concentrated in the hands of the few” — and he went on to say that “societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time,” but will eventually tear asunder.
The success of the Arab Spring depends in large part on what happens in Egypt, the largest Arab state, and Tunisia, where the uprisings started. Political reforms are essential, but so are jobs. Mr. Obama promised both countries desperately needed economic help — $2 billion to Egypt alone. He and other leaders have to work hard to fulfill promises of expanded trade and investment.
The administration is finally getting tougher with Syria. On Wednesday, it imposed sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad and six others. In his speech, Mr. Obama still offered the Syrian leader a choice when it comes to reform: “He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.” Nobody thinks Mr. Assad can produce reform even if he wants to. But insisting that he leave power isn’t realistic, although continued pressure could change that.
We share Mr. Obama’s frustration over the stalled peace process — and his administration’s failed efforts to get a deal. Those frustrations are only going to get worse. When Mr. Netanyahu addresses Congress next week, he will likely repeat all of the reasons why Israel cannot make the necessary concessions. In September, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority — who appears to have given up on negotiations — is expected to ask the United Nations General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state.
Mr. Obama was right to warn the Palestinians that such symbolic actions “won’t create an independent state.” But the vote would also isolate Israel and the United States. Washington and its allies need to put a map on the table and challenge both sides to resume negotiations. That is the best chance for breaking the stalemate and the best chance for peace.