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August 18, 2009
Obama softens tone on Israel
President Obama, at his joint press conference with Egyptian President Mubarak, noticeably softened his tone on Israel, praising the Netanyahu government for "movement in the right direction." At the same, Obama said he didn't just want to see movement from the Israeli side. He urged the Palestinians to show progress in dismantling terror groups and halting anti-Israel incitement, and similarly prodded Arab regimes to "show willingness to engage Israel."
Amid reports that the Netanyahu government has suspended construction permits for new housing in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Obama abandoned his earlier sharp criticism of settlements and instead emphasized that "the Israeli government has taken discussion with us very seriously."
Obama, also in a more positive vein, told reporters: "I'm encouraged by some of the things I'm seeing on the ground."
At the same time, he repeatedly called on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israel's Arab neighbors to show some reciprocity.
Obama said his administration plans to test whether there is a "growing realization" by the Palestinians "that Israel is not going anywhere and is a fact, a reality that has to be dealt with."
Looking ahead, both Obama and Mubarak called for early resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Obama said he hopes to "jumpstart an effective process on all sides to move away from the status quo" and called on them "to move off the rut we're in." Mubarak similarly called on the Palestinians and Israel to return to the negotiating table.
Did Obama switch to a more positive tone on Israel to parry growing criticism that the administration's one-sided obsession with settlements has become a dead-end? Or do his remarks represent a substantive change toward a more even-handed policy that doesn't require Israel to make unilateral moves and concessions?
Whatever Obama's intentions, presidential words matter. Now, they will be tested by whether his envoy, George Mitchell, will lean just as hard on the Palestinians, Jordanians and Saudis to get off their high horse and come up with their own confidence-building measures.
That may be a far tougher task than leaning on Israel over settlements. Even before Mubarak's visit, Arab leaders, including Mubarak, had rejected the notion of immediate reciprocity on their part. And Mahmoud Abbas is coming off a Fatah political convention that glorified terrorists and adopted a policy of retaining terrorism as an option to further its political ends.
Again, if Obama is true to his words, the most important signal from his remarks with Mubarak at his side is that the ball is now in Abbas's court. Both Obama and Mubarak want a quick re-start of negotiations -- the very thing Abbas has blocked with his party's hard-line stance that he won't resume negotiations until Israel imposes an absolute construction freeze in East Jerusalem and in West Bank settlements, agrees to a "right of return" of Palestinian refugees, and releases all terrorist prisoners.
In contrast, Netanyahu says he's ready today -- has been for months -- for negotiations without pre-conditions.
Thus, given the tenor of Obama's remarks, it would seem that the next move now is up to Mahmoud Abbas. That will be the real test of whether Obama means what he now says.