When President Obama steps to the microphone Thursday in Cairo to propose a new American partnership with the Muslim world, Arabs across the region will wait to hear what he has to say about Israel – as much as what he has to say about Islam.
Although the White House says Obama won't unveil detailed policy plans, expectations are high after eight years of often-antagonistic relations between the region's leaders and the Bush administration.
Critics of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's autocratic rule expect Obama to champion democratic reforms in Egypt. Iraqi leaders will listen for assurances that Obama will follow through on his pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from their country. Pro-Western Middle East politicians want him to challenge Iran. American rivals from Tehran, Iran, to Damascus, Syria, will watch to see how conciliatory he's willing to be with his evolving diplomatic plans.
However, agreement is widespread that what Obama says about Israel and the Palestinians will be paramount.
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“You have to give them hope that the United States will stop its bias towards the Israeli side,” said Emad Gad, a senior analyst at Cairo's state-run Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “If President Obama puts the Palestinian issue on the real road to a settlement, then I think the atmosphere in the region will change, because this is the main reason that Islamic fundamentalists can recruit.”
If Obama hopes to transform America's image in the Middle East, Arab politicians, Middle East analysts and U.S. adversaries expect him to say clearly that Israel must make difficult concessions.
In the past week, the Obama administration has sent the strongest signals yet that it's willing to challenge Israel on the most vexing issues at the heart of the conflict.
In a decisive break with the past administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explicitly has rejected Israelis' arguments that they're allowed to keep building in existing settlements under the U.S.-backed and Israeli-endorsed “road map” for peace in the region.
Obama appeared to back that interpretation Thursday at the White House after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“Time is of the essence,” he said. He also said clearly that Israel must “stop the settlements.”
“We can't continue with a drift, with the increased fear and resentments on both sides, the sense of hopelessness around the situation that we've seen for many years now,” Obama said. “We need to get this thing back on track.”
Israel's center-right government signaled Thursday that construction will continue.
But in an apparent concession, Israel has focused on a small number of rustic outposts set up by hard-line Jewish settlers, who generally oppose giving up any West Bank land to the Palestinians. In recent days, Israeli soldiers have demolished a handful of homes in the smaller illegal outposts.
But Israeli anti-settlement groups said the government so far had failed to follow through on long-standing promises to raze the larger and more troubling renegade outposts.
Arab and Muslim leaders will watch for decisive steps if Israel refuses to accede to the pressure.
“People expect that he is going to be evenhanded, which was an obscene word before,” said Abdelaleem Alabiad, communications adviser for the Arab League in Cairo. “Especially in the Middle East, America was seen as one-sided.”
Diplomats such as Alabiad said the president will have to capitalize on the speech by outlining specific peace plans in the coming weeks.
Obama appears to be preparing to do just that. One idea gaining new credence is a regional plan to offer Israel peace with its Arab rivals in exchange for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
The leading advocate in the Middle East for this approach is Jordan's King Abdullah, who's pushing a new “57-state solution” that would offer Israel normal relations with Arab and Muslim nations once a Palestinian nation is created.
In the run-up to the speech, Obama has conferred with Abdullah and other key regional players. Before he flies to Cairo, Obama has added a last-minute visit to Saudi Arabia to meet Saudi King Abdullah, who first championed a similar plan in 2002.
Obama has made it clear he wants dramatic concessions from the Arab world, as well.
One big hurdle is a long-standing demand that Palestinian refugees who fled homes in what's now Israel be allowed to return. Israeli leaders oppose that, which they see as tantamount to the end of Israel as a predominantly Jewish nation.
Palestinian negotiators in past peace talks have shown a willingness to compromise on this core issue. Gad also said that Arab leaders understood that a deal must be cut.
“They are ready to do that in closed rooms, not before the press, because it's very risky for them to speak about these issues in public,” Gad said. “We know that the Arab initiative means canceling the right of return, but they cannot say that clearly. You have to sit with them around the table and negotiate.”
Middle East leaders understand Obama is coming to the region early in his term with tremendous political cachet.
While animosity toward the U.S. has waned in the Arab world since Obama took office, the recently released Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey found that more than three-quarters of the respondents across the region still view America negatively.
However, a small majority of respondents were optimistic that American Middle East policy is on the right track, giving Obama his opening.