Obama Sends Message to Israel That It's Not Business as Usual

If there ever was a speech by an American president that detailed the complexities of the Middle East with simple common sense it was President Barack Obama's historic foreign policy address Thursday in Cairo to the Muslim world.

Although the tangibles I had hoped for were missing, Obama's speech offered something not witnessed in American foreign policy for more than a decade: balance.

There has been considerable discussion in recent days about Obama's "tough love" attitude towards Israel regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He delivered that message to Israel today but he also gave equal measure to the Arab nations.

For the first time ever I am beginning to sense that Israel will be held accountable for its actions and its failure to embrace the two-state solution. Why? Unlike previous presidents, Obama spoke of "Palestine." He spoke of Israel's "daily humiliations" on Palestinians and Israel's "occupation." These words can't be dismissed as rhetoric. It's the same language that Muslims use to describe our grief over the conflict. It's recognizing the existence of Palestine.

At the same time he told his predominately Muslim audience that suicide bombers have surrendered their moral authority by killing old women on buses and that Hamas must come to terms with recognizing Israel's right to exist. Whenever he spoke of the failings of Arabs to find a path to peace, he brought the same message to Israel.

This frank discussion was punctuated and given credibility by Obama's own biography, which he invoked to remind his audience that he does indeed understand the Muslim point of view. He pointed out that there are mosques in every U.S. state and that Muslims there enjoy the same successes as non-Muslim Americans. He pointed out that U.S. congressman Keith Ellison was sworn into office using Thomas Jefferson's Holy Qur'an. He quoted the Q'uran and spoke of the Prophet (peace be upon him).

Weaving his personal biography and America's biography into a speech that treated Israelis and Palestinians equally -- and for that matter Muslims and non-Muslims as equal partners -- demonstrate what so few politicians have achieved since 9/11. He emphasized the commonality among Muslims and non-Muslims and not the divides.

Yet his tone bordered on a lecture at times, particularly when he pointedly discussed democracy, freedom of speech and religion, and women's rights that were clearly directed at the Egyptian government and other Arab nations. But it's difficult to fault him when he acknowledged the role the United States played in the overthrow of the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadeq government in Iran in 1953.

Obama's critics will probably view this speech and his visit to the Middle East as his "apology tour" where he acknowledged mistakes, reached out to a marginalized segment of the world community with a naïve message of peace, and threw Israel to the wolves.

I don't see it that way. Obama is not going to fix everything and probably not even most things in the Middle East. But he set the tone that rhetoric and slavish loyalty to one country at the expense of the rest of the region is not the answer to peace. His speech put Israel and Arab leaders on notice that it is no longer business as usual.