Obama to talk of 'historic change' in speech on Middle East

Commentators question what US president will say and whether he will speak specifically about the Israel-Palestine issue, so central to US opinion.

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WASHINGTON // US President Barack Obama's long-awaited speech on the political upheaval in the Middle East is due to be delivered tomorrow in Washington with analysts questioning the overriding purpose of the address.

Senior administration officials have characterised the speech as an opportunity for Mr Obama to reset US relations with the Muslim world, emphasise his support for democracy in the region and highlight administration policy on the upheavals, which has been criticised as inconsistent in many quarters.

On Monday, Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said the president would address what he said was a "remarkable period" in the history of the region and the administration's approach to such "historic change".

"He believes that the future of that region will be written by the people of the region, and that what we're seeing is an expression of long pent-up desire for greater freedom, greater prosperity, greater engagement in the political process in these countries," Mr Carney said.

It is not clear to what extent Mr Obama intends to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where US mediation efforts have run aground. George Mitchell, the administration's peace envoy, resigned last week after two fruitless years, and Washington appears to be out of ideas to tackle an issue that, for all the regional turmoil, remains central to US Middle East policy.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is due to meet Mr Obama on Friday. Israel has said it will not negotiate with any Palestinian government that has the support of Hamas, the Islamist movement that won the last Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. This month Hamas and Fatah, the party of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, signed a reconciliation agreement after years of estrangement.

Unless Mr Obama makes specific reference to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where many have been urging the US administration to bring its own proposals to the table, it is not clear what the intentions of Mr Obama's speech are, said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think-tank.

"A peace plan is out of the picture. I think [the speech] is going to be an attempt by Obama to put to rest the impression that the US has no strategic vision on how to deal with the [regional] unrest."

The problem for Mr Obama will be in outlining a clear policy that, at the same time, allows the administration the flexibility to continue to deal with each country in the region on a case-by-case basis, Ms Ottaway said. "In that sense, it is going to be a very difficult speech."

The administration is already under fire for applying different standards to different countries. After much hesitation, the US eventually called on Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, to step down in the face of mounting domestic protests.

The US has done the same in Libya, where it also is taking part, alongside some European countries, in a UN-mandated military operation to enforce a no-fly zone and sanctions targeting the Libyan regime.

But while it has stepped up its rhetoric against the Syrian leadership, after nearly two months of deadly clashes between demonstrators and security forces, the Obama administration has yet to characterise Bashar al Assad, the Syrian president, as having lost his legitimacy - the key-phrase that was applied in Egypt and Libya.

And the US has been almost completely silent on the violent crackdown on protests in Bahrain.

Steven Cook, of the US Council on Foreign Relations, said if Mr Obama goes out and says he is standing with Arab peoples' democratic aspirations, he is simply "adding a metric" by which the Arab world will now judge the administration's future actions.

"I don't understand why he is giving a speech," Mr Cook said. "There is only one thing he can say in the speech - that he stands with the aspirations of the people in the Arab world who are demanding change - but it sets himself up for contradictions."

Mr Cook said the US president could spring a surprise, having "proved himself to be formidable politically and extraordinarily smart, so he may know something that the rest of us don't".

On Monday, Mr Obama's former national security adviser, General James Jones, told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington that he would like to see the US create an aid package for Egypt similar to the Marshall Plan that helped Europe emerge from the destruction of the Second World War.

Such a package, he suggested, would send a clear message to those who doubt US policy in the region and provide direct support for democratic forces in the region.

In the current US economic climate, an extensive aid package might be an unrealistic proposition. It would, however, provide a tangible element to a speech that, absent on specifics regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and consistency in US policy on regional upheavals, might end up sounding like empty rhetoric.