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The Cairo Obama, one year later

A year ago this month, President Obama declared to an audience at Cairo University that he had “come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” In a surprisingly bold speech that quoted the Koran repeatedly and reached out to Arabs and Muslims who had grown increasingly disaffected with American foreign policy, Obama candidly addressed the issues of Iraq, Afghanistan and democracy, and seized the moment by acknowledging both the Palestinian and Israeli historical narratives.

His words were widely judged a success. Four months later, a Gallup poll reported that a majority of the populations of Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and Bahrain all said relations with the United States had improved. Even more important, the anger toward America that was so vitriolic during the George W. Bush administration had subsided.

Sustaining this trend, however, requires more than an infatuation with Obama’s personal story or relief that Bush is no longer in office. Concrete progress on a number of complex regional issues is imperative, and here the balance sheet is weaker, if not totally in the red.

On Iraq, the administration has kept to its schedule on redeployment and withdrawal. The security situation seems to be better if still tenuous. But although elections were held in March, no government has been formed because of sectarian tensions.

The Afghanistan problem will obviously linger; Taliban influence seems to be on the rise, and U.S. relations with President Hamid Karzai waver between cold and warm. Afghanistan’s future remains unclear because it needs nation-building and a strong central government, both of which are anathema to Afghan tradition.

Overtures toward Iran have proved futile, whether on the subject of Iraq, Lebanon or its nuclear program. And there has been heightened pressure in Congress for more aggressive policies, including the use of force, while the administration has been focused on diplomatic tools such as U.N. sanctions.

But the determining factor for fundamental change between America and the Muslim world will not be any of those issues. It will be the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On this issue, Obama was particularly articulate in Cairo, asserting that “the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.” Obama acknowledged “the daily humiliations” of the occupation, took a strong position in opposition to settlements, seemed to equate the Israeli and Palestinian narratives, and ultimately said that “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.”

These were inspiring words. Nevertheless, it is on the Israeli-Palestinian issue that the Obama administration’s credibility has lost the most ground since last June, because there were no consequences when Israel subsequently rejected his call for a settlement freeze and expanded its incursions into East Jerusalem. Just this week, the administration offered a tepid response to Israel’s killing in international waters of at least nine people in the Gaza-bound flotilla.

Today, violent attacks against Israelis are at an all-time low, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is establishing efficient instruments of government on the West Bank and President Mahmoud Abbas is committed to a negotiated settlement and nonviolence. Yet as long as current Israeli policies prevail, the indirect Palestinian-Israeli talks have little, if any, chance of salvaging the two-state solution. If the talks fail, it will further diminish Obama’s credibility in the Muslim world.

For all these reasons, it is imperative that Obama take clear, substantive political positions to safeguard the core parameters of the negotiations. He should speak out and publicly express his support for what many people in the region have long known are the obvious outlines of any deal that ultimately will be reached, saying that:

• The pre-1967 line will define the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state, and that any swaps of lands will not significantly change the 1967 demarcations and occur only with mutual agreement.

• Security arrangements should safeguard both parties against attack or the threat of attack by either side, as well as surprise attack from third parties, because security can neither be ignored nor become a justification for continuing occupation.

• Jerusalem should encompass the capitals of two states, Palestinian and Israeli, each with sovereign rights, but also with special cooperative arrangements with regard to religious sites and, where necessary, municipal services.

• Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem must be “agreed upon” in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194. The resolution calls for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, but the Arab summit peace initiative of 2002 inserted the words “agreed upon” to open the door for creative compromise solutions between Israelis and Palestinians on this issue.

One year later, Obama has to show that he meant what he said in Cairo. Otherwise, he risks becoming the American president who presided over the demise of the two-state solution and who confirmed the arguments of the naysayers in the region who question America’s commitment to justice and freedom.

Nabil Fahmy, the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at American University in Cairo, served as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States from 1999 to 2008.


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