Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
May 25, 2011 - 12:00am

So what can we conclude after the past week’s jamboree of speeches on the Middle East by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama?

After spending last week in Washington and New York, my impression is that very little has changed in any substantive way. The speeches and public debate have not significantly moved any of the basic diplomatic markers that define the contemporary Middle East, with the possible exception of Obama’s description of the ongoing Arab revolts for freedom and democracy as a process of self-determination. However, it is unclear if this is only rhetoric or will be reflected in new American policies. I would note two intriguing issues in the developments during the past week.

The first is that the Middle East as whole and Arab-Israeli issues in particular are being discussed in major Western arenas (the United States, and now Europe this week) with an almost total absence of credible Arab voices. This is the logical consequence of the past several decades of incompetent collective Arab leadership that has seen the Arab world’s fate defined largely by the actions of non-Arab powers, primarily the U.S., Israel, Iran and, in places, Turkey. It is quite frightening that two of the three principal drivers of contemporary Arab national weakness, mediocrity and subservience – the U.S. and Israel, Arab governments being the third – should be the main interlocutors on current discussions on major and fateful issues such as Arab-Israeli diplomacy, the Arab Spring, Iran, and others.

There is an unreal quality to the public discussion in the West about the Arab world, given the absence of Arabs in the discussion. This is partly a reflection of the incompetence of Arab officialdom, because many Arabs in their private capacity continue to carry the load of engaging with officials, media, academia and civil society across the globe. It is also partly a reflection of the continuing disdain and disrespect that define how the American-Israeli and some other Western establishments view the Arab states and people in general, with very few exceptions.

We Arabs are objects of their fascination, self-interest, and occasional fear, but rarely are we treated as people or states with equal rights. So they debate us, describe us, define us, but also they mostly discount us as serious actors to be engaged on the basis of equal rights and full respect. This is partly a consequence of lingering American-Israeli racism and Orientalism, and partly a consequence of the Arab world’s own self-inflicted political pauperization and marginalization.

The second intriguing aspects of this past week’s jamboree of American presidential speeches on the Middle East, followed up with the current diplomatic discussions in Europe, is the underlying impetus for this Obama initiative. This is not happening in a vacuum, because Obama spoke and acted aggressively on the Middle East since his first day in office. His successes have been few if any, but his persistence has been noteworthy. Why does he now raise the important but sensitive issue of the 1967 borders being the starting point for Israeli-Arab peacemaking, with reciprocal adjustments? He knows well there is little hope for progress on this because of the domestic pressures of an American presidential year – which he mentioned at the AIPAC conference this past weekend – and the very wide gap in the positions of the Arab and Israeli main players.

Obama is neither naïve nor uninformed. So what motivates him? Why does he keep pushing for Arab-Israeli negotiations in the face of apparently insurmountable obstacles? The only possible explanation is the one he actually offers – that the current situation is unsustainable, and that this portends bad news ahead for Israel and the U.S. alike. He grasps better than the Israelis that the Palestine issue resonates deeply with many in the Middle East (not just Arabs, but Iranians, Turks and many others). He also seems to appreciate that the Arab Spring demonstrations in favor of freedom will soon open up spaces in which Arab citizens and governments alike will address foreign policy issues that concern them.

One of the underlying but unspoken reasons for the Arab revolt against many of their governments is the sense of shame at seeing the almost total emasculation of Arab foreign policies that have become subservient to American, Israeli or other Western dictates. Arab impotence and foreign disrespect go hand-in-hand. The Arab revolts under way across the region aim to achieve dignity and democracy at home in the first instance, but also renewed respect around the world.

The Israel-Palestine issue will probably emerge as the main focus of these dynamics, which more democratic, competent and self-respecting Arab governments and societies will manage more effectively than has been the case in recent decades. Obama seems to understand this, while Netanyahu does not. This is perhaps the only new thing that we can see in the current speeches on the Middle East.

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