Israel Prickles Over Obama's Mideast Proposal

President Obama's speech on Middle East issues earlier this week drew a lukewarm response from Israel; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly rejected some of the president's proposals. Is there any common ground left on which the U.S. and Israel can build a dialogue? Host Scott Simon speaks with Dr. Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Marc Lynch joins us in the studios now. He's director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. He writes a blog about the Middle East on ForeignPolicy.com. Marc, thanks for being with us again.

Mr. MARC LYNCH (Director, Institute of Middle East Studies, George Washington University): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: In that scene of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, looking just a little bit uncomfortable with each other, did they say what they have to say and now can they go on to do business or are they both locked into final positions?

Mr. LYNCH: Oh, these are certainly not final positions, but there's a lot of jockeying to come. I don't think what Obama said was all that new or all that exceptional, but the political firestorms followed. I think it was also totally predictable. I don't think that there's much opportunity right now for any real negotiations or any real progress on any side.

I think the president is to be commended for - he recognizes how important this is that what we've got right now is simply unsustainable. And that if something isn't resolved, we're more likely to see an explosion than the kind of the continuing of the status quo. Whether that's Palestinian kind of a peaceful uprising, whether it's renewed violence, it's impossible to say. But it's almost impossible to see how this can be sustained, given what's happening in the rest of the region.

But that said, nobody knows how to move forward and that's what makes it so difficult.

SIMON: I wonder with your fine eye what you noticed in the speech that may have escaped the rest of us. Because, of course, much of our concentration in the wake of the president's remarks has been devoted to Israel and the statement about two societies and the 1967 borders. What else was there?

Mr. LYNCH: Well, I think the main purpose of the speech was that President Obama wanted to lay out the recognition that the region is changing and that that's not because of the United States. We're not driving it. We're not making it. But things are changing. The people are much more mobilized, they're engaged. Sometimes they're bringing down governments, sometimes they're failing to do so.

And what Obama was trying to do was to step back from here's Syria and it's bloody; here's Libya and there's a war; something happened in Egypt, and give a broader vision of where the United States fits in this changing region. And that's where I think the Israel part fits in, which is to say that I think many people have grown very comfortable with the status quo, which is unpleasant but basically seen to be relatively stable.

And what he was trying to say is that we've looked around the entire region and what looks like it's stable actually isn't. And basically is trying to kick both sides and say we've got to move or else everything's going to fall apart and things can be a lot worse than they are right now.

SIMON: Did he catch the wave of history, if you please, with that speech, because there was criticism in the region that he certainly didn't say much about Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. LYNCH: Well, he did talk about Bahrain, and I think that that pleased many activists who didn't expect him to say that. But you're right, he didn't talk about Saudi Arabia. And many people noticed, for example, that he had a long stretch of discussion on women in the region but didn't mention Saudi Arabia, which is quite glaring.

I actually think that if he had given this speech when they originally wanted to give it, shortly after the fall of President Mubarak and before things turned bloody in Syria, in Libya, in Yemen, in Bahrain, then I think you would have had more of that feel of catching the wave of history.

The feel that it had now was of catching your breath and trying to make sense of what's been happening in this, you know, this crazy rush of events and trying to make sense, both for themselves and for the world and for the American people of what we're doing, why we're doing it and I think crucially why it matters to the American people.

And I think it goes back to this notion of the United States has real interest in the region. It has real values at stake and this wasn't a choice that Obama made to throw the region into unrest. But it's something which now he has to respond to. And simply going back to the old ways isn't going to cut it.

SIMON: Marc, always a pleasure. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. LYNCH: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Marc Lynch is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. His blog about the Middle East, Abu Aardvark, is on ForeignPolicy.com. Thanks again.

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