Obama's Middle East vision: Opportunity and obstacles

President Barack Obama Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Will Mr Obama say anything concrete about Israel and the Palestinians?

President Barack Obama will on Thursday set out his vision of a new Middle East. One senior official says we are at a moment of opportunity after a decade of division and tension.

But there is no greater tension, no greater division than over Israel and the Palestinians. His speech may be judged on whether he offers anything more than reheated rhetoric to jolt the becalmed peace process into new life.

If the simple message of Mr Obama to the Arab protesters is "We're on your side!", he faces some awkward obstacles. He hopes to say that with the Iraq war over and Osama Bin Laden dead, this is the time for a turning of the page, a brighter future, for a region that will take its rightful place on the world stage. He'll contrast al-Qaeda's violent nihilism with the peaceful protests that brought change to Egypt and Tunisia.

His first difficulty is that he will, presumably, try to set out a coherent narrative, an explanation of a strategy which hangs together. The trouble is that his reaction has varied wildly from place to place.

Let's recall. Sympathy for the aims of demonstrators in Egypt. Finally a call for Hosni Mubarak to go. A call for Muammar Gaddafi to go, early on. But a clear desire not to get involved militarily in Libya. Then military action. A ticking off for Bahrain. No military action against Syria. Indeed, no mention of Syria until the recent sanctions.

Different places are different. In the tension between America's values and America's interests, the variety of responses is both explicable and defensible. It's just that it makes it much more difficult for him to send a clear signal.

Then what may be the glaring hole at the heart of the speech. Of course he will mention the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He will exhort. He will urge. But no-one I have spoken to expects him to say anything concrete. The reconciliation between the militant group Hamas and Fatah is too fresh, too awkward. He cannot urge Israel to talk to people he says are terrorists.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Many Palestinians have been inspired to protest by the upheaval elsewhere in the Arab world

But there is a widespread feeling that he has to do something, and soon. Some complain he undercut his own peace envoy, George Mitchell, that there was no real plan, and that there haven't been any real negotiations for months. And there's a feeling time is running out. One senior Western diplomat, who accepted there would be nothing new in this speech, told me "this is too important to be put in a tray marked 'too difficult'".

In September, the Palestinians will try to get the United Nations to accept their statehood. It will probably vote to do so.

Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me: "That could provide the spark. If you have an uprising against Israel that is peaceful, non-violent, major demonstrations, tens of thousands Palestinians marching on an Israeli settlement in the West Bank in the context of the UN General Assembly having recognised this as the state of Palestine, in which Israel is in occupation, that is going to create a potentially explosive situation.

"So there's a potential for an explosion which will immensely complicate what the president is trying to do in his speech, which is send a message to the people of the Arab world that he is with them. Because if there is an explosion like that he will have to choose between the Arab street, which will be on the side of the Palestinians, and Israel our ally, to which he is deeply committed. So it is very much in America's interests to avoid that, and there's only one way to do that. And that's to get back to negotiations."

He continued that everyone knew where the Palestinian state would be. "It's not going to be on the moon, it's the West Bank and Gaza." That's why some regard a presidential mention of the 1967 borders as some kind of a test of whether he is serious. Of course, everybody knows where the moon is as well. It doesn't mean it's easy getting from here to there.