President Barack Obama's Mideast speech was wide-ranging and included some strong elements. The president spoke well about how we view democracy--including not only majority rule but minority rights and the rule of law. The president's words about Israel's security needs were powerful as well, in essence tying any possible Israeli military withdrawal from the West Bank to actual, demonstrable Palestinian security performance rather than mere promises.
But other parts of the speech were less impressive, and two deserve note. First, the president simply rewrote history when it came to supporting democracy in the Middle East. He claimed to have done so from the start, with his Cairo speech. But in fact, his administration's policy was engagement--engagement with regimes, not peoples, including the repressive regimes in Iran and Syria. His reaction to events in Iran in June 2009, and more recently in Tunisia and then Egypt, was cautious and slow. Perhaps this passage was an effort to avoid saying what is more accurate: that the Bush Freedom Agenda turned out to be right, and his own administration had been wrong to jettison it.
Second, on the whole, the president's comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will lead nowhere. It is striking that he suggested no action: no meeting, no envoy, no Quartet session, no invitations to Washington. About the new Fatah-Hamas unity agreement he said this: "How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question." Indeed they must, and they won't, so this is perhaps an acknowledgment by the president that negotiations are simply unrealistic right now.
He did suggest an approach: delay negotiations on Jerusalem and refugees, and resolve the border and security issues first. In fact, the border is most in dispute near Jerusalem, so achieving a border agreement without resolving Jerusalem cannot work. Nor is it realistic that issues be broken off this way--solve the border, forget the refugee issue--for two reasons. A successful negotiation will require trade-offs, so reducing the number of issues on the table may actually make success harder. Moreover, it is difficult to see Israel agreeing to any deal that does not include the refugee issue, for a Palestinian insistence that five million Palestinians have the right to move into Israel means they have not actually accepted the permanent existence of the Jewish state. But it is possible that the White House understands all this, and was mostly seeking to park the issue for the coming year through some "balanced" rhetoric. They may have achieved that goal.