Obama's speech by itself was not surprising. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, Israel's strategic importance is greatly diminished, and with the so-called "Arab spring" taking hold in Tunisia and Egypt, the Administration sees a golden opportunity to seize the initiative and bring the Oil producing Arab countries firmly under Western control by supporting the Arab revolt. Whether this is possible is something the jury is still deliberating. Typical American naivite, however, seems to believe that the "Arab spring" will bring about democratic regimes with which America will be able to partner and Israel will be able to get real peace.
There is much to be said about the naive American approach. To begin with, the problem is not political nor economic but cultural. From an Arab perspective, since History is the story of the expansion of Islam, non Muslim people need to keep their places. They regard Dhimmis ("protected minorities") demanding rights as "insolence", as Christian Copts in Egypt can attest. A true Arab revolution would be the change from an absolute ethnocentric view of the world to one that accepts the existence of others. Kurds, while Muslims, are still being persecuted even with an American presence in Iraq, as are Black Muslims in Darfur. Women still do not have equal rights in most Arab countries, and Unions are still prohibited throughout the Arab World. Thinking that the overthrow of Mubarak was all that took to make democratic societies out of Arab citizens is not only naive but dangerous because it validates the new regimes before they even come into existence.
On the issue of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, his speech deserve some more disecting. First of all, he made a point of berating both Israel and the Palestinians; the former for its settlement policies an the latter for just walking out of the negotiations. He also pointedly warned Abbas that going to the UN to seek unilateral recognition while bypassing negotiations is not something he will accept, but on the other hand he validated the establishment of the 1949 cease fire lines ("pre-67 borders") as the starting point for negotiations. He did it in order to improve his standing with the Arab world, which was the context of his speech when taken as a whole. The problem with it is that it takes away from Israel its last remaining bargaining chips and hands them over to Abbas. In other words, he seems to be saying "Mr. Abbas, don't go to the UN - it is wrong. Come to me and I'll give you the same things for a better price"; almost a "Shuq strategy". But none of this is so distressing, after all in a way he is reiterating what prior American administrations have said, and the change seems to be one of emphasis so far. He still expressed the undying commitment of the US to Israel's security and the "unbroken links" that tie both countries.
The real red flag is, in my opinion, his comment that the starting point for the negotiations must be the establishment of a Palestinian state with recognized borders. He even explicitly said that the "issues of Jerusalem and refugees" can be dealt with later. In other words, he is trying to pry the last chips from Israel while preserving the Palestinian ones. Israel has insisted, and righfully so, that borders should be part of the final status negotiations along with refugees and Jerusalem. After 63 years, Palestinians have yet to recognize Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish people or even the right of Israel to exist. From the Palestinian perspective, the problem is not 1967 but 1948, and some even say 1917.
The speech does represent an apparent shift in American policy vis-a-vis the Israeli Palestinian conflict and one that is not favorable to Israel, but it also carries a different message...
For our latest Annual meeting we had as guest speaker Gil Lainer, Israel Consul for Public Diplomacy in New York. He told this story about two people in a neighborhood who kept arguing about where to put the property fence, and every time anybody spoke to one of them, the only thing they heard were complaints about the other. Eventually, the neighbors stopped talking to both and stopped caring anymore about the dispute. Obama's speech is saying "the world is tired of it...fix it", which is the same message. Netanyahu would be well advised to keep this in mind when crafting his speech for Congress; Israel needs Congress to reamain, as it has been over the years, Israel's ally.
Times coming up are very dangerous for Israel, and as Jews we need to express our support for Israel's right to exist and for the right of the Jewish People to self-determination. On June 5, in New York, we have the opportunity...Join us.