Like many observers I thought Obama’s speech in Cairo was excellent: brave, reasoned, and direct. Of course he paid routine tribute to “all of the children of Abraham”, underlining the values they hold in common, and so on. That was the easy stuff. The hard part was to transcend those platitudes, get to grips with the issues, and say things he knew would fail to please his audience.
He did. He affirmed “America’s strong bonds with Israel” and called on Palestinians to abandon armed struggle: “Violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.” He also attacked Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Holocaust deniers, calling their views “baseless”, “ignorant” and “hateful”. There was no equivocation in these parts of his speech. But he also recognised the justice of the Palestinian cause. “America will not turn its back on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own… The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. It is time for these settlements to stop.”
The challenge in fact is not merely to stop new settlements, which will be hard enough, but also to evacuate existing ones. David Ignatius has a good column on the long history of US exhortation on the matter. Experience says that deflecting Israel from its current policy is likely to require more than mere words. Words have been tried before, but if they count for anything, give Obama his due. This was an outstanding speech, one that paid tribute to the intelligence and goodwill of his audience. He addressed the world’s Muslims frankly but respectfully, as a would-be friend and partner. He achieved a tone and sophistication that few other politicians–to say nothing of his predecessor–could even attempt, let alone match. I think we have a test case for the efficacy of soft-power diplomacy. We will see what difference, if any, the Obama factor makes.