Letter From the Arab World: The Speeches Revisited

I am writing from the Middle East where I am catching an earful about last month's dueling speeches between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. To say that majorities here express deep disappointment in American leadership would not be accurate. They were already disappointed, now most have given up.

We had seen warning signs of this distressed mood in our earlier polling. After the post-Oslo let down in the '90's and the deep damage done by the neglectful and/or reckless policies of George W. Bush during the past decade, even the hoped for change promised by President Obama was tempered by a degree of cynicism. So while Obama was receiving mildly favorable ratings in a few Arab countries following his early post-election actions and his Cairo speech, a majority of Arabs in most of the countries covered in our surveys expressed the belief that "no American president can make change" either in improving U.S.-Arab ties or in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This negative attitude was reinforced in the fall of 2009 when the administration appeared to back away from what Arabs had felt was a White House insistence on an Israeli settlement freeze before direct peace talks could start and when the U.S. pressed the Palestinian Authority to call for shelving the U.N. Human Rights Commission's report on the abuses that had occurred during the Gaza War. Despite a few ups and downs, little has changed and attitudes haven't improved since then.

Our past polling shows that Arabs in each country have their own priority concerns -- almost always including some mix of economic issues, education, and health care -- with the rank order of these varying from place to place. In some countries issues like nepotism, corruption, human rights, and political reform, will also make it into the top tier. But when asked which of these concerns the U.S. can be helpful in addressing, some Arabs might suggest capacity issues (economic development, and improving health care and education), but in no country do domestic political matters get mentioned. Most Arabs simply have not wanted the U.S. to be involved in their internal political affairs. It is interesting to note, however, that in every country polled, very high up on the list of issues on which Arabs feel the U.S. can be helpful is in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because successive American administrations have invested so much time and energy in diplomacy focused on this issue; because we have made such a point of asserting our "special relationship with Israel" and have been seen defending and, therefore, enabling Israeli behavior; and because we too often have failed to understand the deep historical and even emotional place "Palestine" holds in the Arab psyche -- America's standing in the Arab World is largely shaped by our performance on that issue. It was, therefore, in this context that Arabs judged the dueling speeches.

I felt that the seven-eighths of the president's state department speech focusing on the challenges that the Arab Spring posed to the region and to U.S. policy were thoughtful and well considered, especially for an American audience. After being criticized for being slow to respond to the Middle East upheavals and for rejecting a simplistic "one size fits all" approach to democratic transformation, it appeared that the president was determined to respond by laying out a comprehensive, but still flexible, democracy agenda. It was a humble speech. The U.S., he noted, didn't create the Arab Spring, nor could we determine its outcome. What the U.S. could do was assist emerging democracies with job creating investment and capacity building. In this, the president posed a significant challenge to a Congress bent on slashing critical foreign aid programs. This much of the speech was direct and, in part, bold.

It was when his attention shifted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I became concerned the message might fall flat in the Arab World. Having had their fill of Bush's "vision" and words without performance, Arabs were listening for a sign that two years after Cairo the president was ready to advance a plan of action to move peace forward. This they did not get.

While I could quibble with aspects of this speech and the president's follow-up remarks before AIPAC, I was, nevertheless, struck by some things he said that didn't register in the U.S. press or in the Arab World's media. Two points were especially intriguing. The line about "'67 borders with land swaps" drew so much attention that it drowned out the president's more direct and frontal assault on Netanyahu's hard-line positions. When Obama noted in both speeches the fact the Palestinian state should be contiguous and have borders with Egypt, Jordan and Israel, he was directly challenging the Israeli leader's insistence on controlling the Jordan Valley and separating Gaza from the West Bank. And while there were some who commented on the president's remark that Palestinian demographics posed a challenge to Israel (a racial/ethnic argument that makes me more than a little uncomfortable), little notice was given to his more profound observation that transformations in the Arab World must also be considered. In the past, he observed, Israel could make peace with a few Arab leaders. Now, however, in the context of the Arab Spring, the president cautioned, any peace deal must take into account and meet the expectations of Arab public opinion -- a fact that neither Israel nor much of the West has ever considered in their past dealings with this region. But even with these observations, it was the absence of a plan to advance peace that left Arabs cold.

If President Obama's speeches fell flat, Prime Minister Netanyahu's performances both angered opinion here, while serving as disturbing reminders of why Arabs no longer see the U.S. as capable of leading the search for peace. Arabs were stunned by what they saw as Netanyahu's rude and arrogant "schooling" of Obama at the White House and his shocking display of "mastery" over the U.S. Congress -- and that body's embarrassing display of subservience to a foreign leader.

After hearing the president's and prime minister's speeches, one important Arab thought leader compared U.S. commitments on Palestine to "receiving bounced checks" and told me that "we've decided to stop accepting them because we know you can't make good on the payment". Because this region is only too aware of the role domestic politics plays in limiting the ability of U.S. presidents to "deliver the goods", there is a search for alternatives. Hence, Egypt's decision to press forward with Palestinian reconciliation and opening Gaza's borders, the newly assertive role of the G.C.C. in regional affairs, and the growing support across the Arab World for the effort to push for a United Nation's vote recognizing Palestinian statehood. All these initiatives are being seen as forms of defiant self-empowerment.

What comes through so clearly in media commentary and conversations is that confidence in the U.S. may have reached a tipping point in this region. In this emerging new reality, the cautionary observation President Obama offered in his AIPAC remarks on the importance of a newly freed and now consequential Arab public opinion may now be said to apply as much to the U.S. as it does to Israel. But in this region, that fact is already understood.

Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of  Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.