By Sami Moubayed – Special to CNN
In his speech to Arabs and Muslims on Thursday, President Obama needs to repeat what he said in Cairo in 2009 - only this time, he needs to follow words with actions.
Palestinians need land, dignity, justice and a state. Thankfully, now is the time for this and for Middle East peace. Let me explain.
So much has changed
So much has changed in the Middle East since President Barack Obama last addressed Arabs and Muslims from Cairo almost two years ago. To name a few recent events:
– Egypt's Revolution: President Obama’s former host and prime ally in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, is now behind bars. Arab regimes feel it no longer pays well to be pro-American because clearly, from the Egyptian case, the U.S. is willing to abandon its most loyal allies when the curtain falls.
– War in Libya: America is now militarily involved in yet another Muslim country with less-than-pleasing results.
– Hamas-Fatah Reconciliation: The two Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas, once sharply divided between the West Bank and Gaza, have now patched up their differences and are speaking with one voice. They are ready for a peace talks with the Israelis under the auspices of the United States.
– Osama Bin Laden is now dead: thanks to President Obama himself.
So much remains the same
These are major events. Yet if one were to scratch beneath the surface, all of the region’s problems remain hauntingly similar. None of the grudges or conflicts of the past have been solved. To name a few more:
– The Sheba Farms are still occupied by Israel.
– Hezbollah is still armed, powerful and connected to Iran. It continues to hold the upper hand in Lebanese politics.
– Hamas still has an Islamic agenda and poses a direct threat to Israel. Meanwhile, Fatah continues to have the same aged and ailing leadership that is corrupt, unpopular and can no longer deliver on nation-building or peace.
– The Golan Heights are still occupied by Israel and no progress whatsoever has been made on the Syrian-Israeli front.
– Iraq is still in pieces.
– There is no Palestinian State.
Can Obama deliver on one, some, all, or none of the above? No other U.S. President ever managed to tackle more than one crisis of this magnitude at a time. But then again, never in recent history has the time been so ripe for redefining America’s role in the Middle East.
Why the time for peace is now
President Obama can provide a fresh blueprint for how things should look between now and 2013. The Arab-Israeli conflict, being the crux of all tension in the Arab World, is at a crossroads because of the Hamas-Fatah rapprochement.
In the past, regardless of how sincere Obama may have been, peace was simply impossible because Fatah was unable to deliver, while the Israelis and Hamas were unwilling. That has now changed.
Since 2009, we have noticed a steady U-turn in Hamas’ behavior. The group’s leaders have expressed willingness to accept a U.S. role in the peace process, provided that Obama acts as an honest broker, making sure that settlements are frozen, the siege of Gaza is lifted and Palestinian nationhood is advanced.
Hamas said it was willing to accept the borders of 1967 and no longer obstruct the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which calls for collective Arab peace with Israel in exchange for complete with withdrawal from Arab land. Gone are the days of a hard-line Hamas that accepts nothing less than the 1948 borders of Palestine.
This Hamas is wiser and more pragmatic, more willing than ever before to walk the path taken by Fatah 18-years ago when Yasser Arafat decided to go to Oslo and transform himself from ‘freedom fighter’ to ‘peacemaker.’
Perhaps Hamas is not half as convinced as Yasser Arafat was in the early 1990s, but that is beside the point: they will do what it takes to reach power and walk in Arafat’s footsteps. They have fallen into the same pitfall as every other resistance movement throughout history: they are now craving power, knowing perfectly well that it might corrupt them. It happened to Fatah in 1993. It happened to the communists in 1917. It is now happening to Hamas.
What President Obama must do
The time is ripe for Obama to push for peace in the Middle East now that Hamas will not object. It of course needs to be a just peace, where everything is put on the table: the right of return for Palestinian refugees, borders, settlements, the future of Jerusalem, and Palestinian nationhood.
In the complex web of Middle East politics, nothing is solved until everything is solved, and Obama needs to understand that a new approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot come in bits and pieces.
He needs to put his foot down on the Israelis.
With or without U.S. support, the Palestinians are planning to take the matter to the United Nations General Assembly next September. The Palestinians are expected, by some rough estimates, to win 140 votes, whereas all they will need at the UN is 128 in order to declare the State of Palestine.
Obama can either sit back and watch it happen, veto it as the Israelis are asking or live up to his “Yes We Can” policy and put his full weight behind the Palestinians.
Two years ago, Obama said:
“It is also undeniable that the Palestinian people - Muslims and Christians - have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. They endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own."
He then added, "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."
Obama needs to say that again, explicitly, but this time, make sure that he puts his words into action.
It all boils down to three fundamentals that Obama needs to address on Thursday: land, dignity and justice for the Palestinians. That is what the Arab street wants to hear.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Sami Moubayed.
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