There is much to be examined in US President Barack Obama’s speech on the Middle East. As usual, the president’s words failed to thrill any side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For leftists, Obama did not go far enough in pressuring Israel to make concessions necessary for peace, and for the “Land of Israel” right-wingers, his explicit mention of 1967 borders as a basis for future borders represented a betrayal of Israeli interests. Both sides, of course, are over-reacting. The president did not introduce much new to the conflict save for one issue: linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the problems of the wider Middle East and American interests in the region.

For decades, Israeli politicians have been fighting what they call “linkage,” the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be linked to the violent strife and domestic problems in the Arab world (explained passionately here by the ADL’s Abraham Foxman). It is true that Israel is not the cause of conflict in the Middle East. The region has been plagued with armed conflict since Babylonian times and through to Israel’s establishment in 1948. If anything, Israel’s entrance into the Middle Eastern neighborhood has allowed Arabs to refocus their conflict on what is viewed as an external enemy, although a fair number of intra-Arab and intra-Muslim conflicts have threatened the region since (Iran-Iraq, Iraq-Kuwait, Syria-Jordan, Lebanon-Syria, Lebanon-Lebanon, Saudi Arabia-Yemen, etc.).

The conclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been widely linked to the relatively dormant Arab-Israeli conflict. With two notable exceptions, Egypt and Jordan, Arab states condition peace with Israel upon the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This has been reinforced in recent years by the Arab Peace Initiative, in which the Arab League unanimously offered normalized relations and collective security arrangements in exchange for the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (as well as the Israeli-Syrian conflict).

While President Obama notably rejected the sad phenomenon in the Arab world wherein “the West was blamed as the source of all ills,” and “antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression,” he also validated two other aspects of linkage that are valid but rarely addressed.

Obama's remarks on the Middle East and North Africa

US President Barack Obama giving remarks on the Middle East and N. Africa

The first type of linkage regards United States interests in the Middle East as they relate to Israel and the conflict. Long relegated to the domains of Noam Chomsky, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, et al, the topic was most recently thrust into the public realm by then-commander of CENTCOM (The US military’s Central Command, which covers the entire Middle East, except Israel) and future director of the CIA, David Petraeus early last year. Under his command, a CENTCOM report presented to the Joint Chiefs and Congress stated: “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests … Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the [Middle East].” The report was followed up with a statement by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said: “The lack of progress toward Middle East peace is clearly an issue that’s exploited by our adversaries in the region” and “does affect US national security interests in the region.”

By simply devoting a sizable portion of his speech addressing changes in the Arab world to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Obama made a passive linkage between the two. He proceeded to quickly make a direct linkage between the two, however, in describing how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “has come with a larger cost to the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people.”

The president (as well as Petraeus and Gates) did not endorse the legitimacy of blaming Israel for the problems of the region. In fact, as mentioned earlier, he discredited the voices pushing that view. He did, however, acknowledge the reality that being best friends with a country considered an oppressor or occupier by others is problematic for US relations and therefore US interests in the region, including its security interests.

The second type of linkage that the president described related to the opportunities and risks presented to Israel by the democratic changes taking place in the Middle East. Demanding that Israel “act boldly to advance a lasting peace,” Obama warned that “a region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people – not just one or two leaders – must believe peace is possible.” In other words, as democracy takes hold, Israel will be forced to make peace with the people of the Middle East instead of autocrats who can be bribed with US aid packages and personal interests. This may very well be an explicit warning about the developing democracy in Egypt. If the people’s demands for a just Palestinian solution are not met, then support for the Palestinian side of the conflict will begin to outweigh the benefits Egypt enjoys from its peace treaty with Israel.

But Obama did not just acknowledge the negative linkage that so many before him have avoided, he also made a positive linkage between the welcome changes taking place in the region and hopes for Palestinian statehood. In his speech, the president mentioned self-determination five times as a main theme of the revolutions taking place in the region. The first four mentions referenced the right of the Tunisian, Egyptian, Syrian and Libyan peoples to choose their own governments and futures. “The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago,” Obama said, “but in too many places their people did not.” In his final mention, he asserted that Palestinians too, along side Israelis, must too enjoy self-determination in their homeland, Palestine.

Finally, the president made the ultimate linkage between the fates of Israelis, Palestinians and all peoples in the region. He presented a linkage that does not distinguish between Israelis and Iraqis, or Palestinians and Egyptians. He described a lasting linkage not only in their conflict but also in their hopes and dreams of a better, peaceful future. Obama reminded Israel that it is a part of the Middle East and its fate is inexorably linked to it.

“That is the choice that must be made -– not simply in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but across the entire region -– a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future.  It’s a choice that must be made by leaders and by the people, and it’s a choice that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife.”

So Israel, the President of the United States has asked you to join a wave of hope and promise for the future sweeping through your neighborhood. You can look at it as a tsunami coming to destroy your home or like a surfer stranded in the ocean, finally given a chance to reach shore.