Obama didn't mention Israel-Palestine in the State of the Union
Sometimes a president sends a message by what he doesn't say. Some in the Middle East have concluded that President Obama did just that in his State of the Union speech earlier this week -- in which he failed to mention Israel, the Palestinians or the Middle East peace process, which was one of his most high-profile diplomatic initiatives during his first year.
The omission sent Israeli officials scrambling to the archives of past State of the Union speeches. Their conclusion: Obama's address, though one of the longest State of the Union speeches, was the first not to mention Israel in at least eight years. (I looked back further: Bill Clinton didn't mention Israel in 1998.) Some also noted that in remarks about countries that were providing humanitarian aid in Haiti two weeks ago, Obama also omitted Israel -- though its emergency team was one of the first to arrive. “He must be very angry at us,” said one official I spoke to.
In fact Obama defended Israel to a critical questioner at a town hall meeting in Tampa on Thursday, the day after the State of the Union. But for those reading tea leaves -- and there are many in the Middle East -- the president has offered a few signs recently that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have moved down his list of priorities. In an interview last week with Time's Joe Klein, he conceded that the administration “overestimated our ability” to advance talks at a time when the domestic politics of both Israel and the Palestinians “ran contrary to that.”
In Tampa on Thursday he said something similar. “The problem that we're confronting right now is that both in Israel and within the Palestinian Territories, the politics are difficult; they're divided,” he said. “The Israel government came in based on the support of a lot of folks who don't want to make a lot of concessions....On the other hand, President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, who I think genuinely wants peace, has to deal with Hamas, an organization that has not recognized Israel and has not disavowed violence.”
What does this all mean for former senator George J. Mitchell, whom Obama appointed with great fanfare to head his Middle East diplomacy effort immediately after his inauguration last year? Mitchell recently told Charlie Rose of PBS that he was undaunted; he said he still believed he could get the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table, along with the Syrians and Lebanese, and broker a comprehensive peace agreement within two years.
If Obama’s words — or lack of them — this week are any indication, the president has his doubts about that goal. If so, I agree with him. As I argued in a column earlier this month, the history of Israeli-Arab diplomacy clearly shows that only peace efforts that originate with the parties themselves have succeeded.
Or, as former secretary of state James A. Baker III once put it, we “can’t want peace more than the parties” themselves. Baker, a master of Middle East diplomacy, once publicly gave Israelis and Palestinians the White House phone number and invited them to call when they were serious about pursuing negotiations. In a more subtle way, Obama may be doing the same thing.
| January 29, 2010; 11:46 AM ET
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