President Barack Obama is preparing a fresh outreach to the Muslim world in coming days, senior U.S. officials say, one that will ask those in the Middle East and beyond to reject Islamic militancy in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death and embrace a new era of relations with the U.S.
Mr. Obama is preparing to deliver that message in a wide-ranging speech, perhaps as early as next week, these officials say. The president intends to argue that bin Laden’s death, paired with popular uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, signal that the time has come to an end when al Qaeda could claim to speak for Muslim aspirations.
“It’s an interesting coincidence of timing—that he is killed at the same time that you have a model emerging in the region of change that is completely the opposite of bin Laden’s model,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser at the White House, said in an interview.
Since January, popular uprisings have overthrown the longtime dictators of Tunisia and Egypt. They have shaken rulers in Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Jordan, marking the greatest wave of political change the world has seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But the push for democracy appears to have stalled in some countries. The street protests against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have morphed into a civil war, with North Atlantic Treaty Organization backing the rebels. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Bahrain’s ruling Khalifa family have both met demonstrations with violence.
Bin Laden’s death gives Mr. Obama a chance to underscore the belief among many administration officials that the terror leader’s relevance had already begun to diminish during the so-called Arab Spring. Mr. Obama, who has made outreach to the Muslim world a cornerstone of his presidency, plans to describe the Islamic world as at a crossroads, said U.S. officials, making the case that bin Laden represented a failed approach of the past while populist movements brewing in the Middle East and North Africa represent the future.
Mr. Rhodes said timing of the speech remains in flux but Mr. Obama could deliver it before leaving on a five-day trip to Europe on May 23. The White House is already telegraphing the message of the coming speech to the Islamic world by placing American diplomats on Arab television and radio, according to U.S. officials.
The White House is still debating, however, whether Mr. Obama should lay out a concrete plan for revitalizing the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process.
Many Arab governments have been pressing Mr. Obama to publicly outline his own parameters for the creation of an independent Palestinian state as a way to exert more pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visits Washington next week. These diplomats said the Mideast’s democratic surge is raising expectations among their own populations for an end to the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict.
White House officials said they are still reassessing the monumental changes in the Middle East and whether an aggressive U.S. push to resume peace talks would likely be successful.
Last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas forged a unity government with the militant group Hamas, which the U.S. and European Union designate a terrorist group. Israeli officials have already cited Hamas’s role in the Palestinian Authority as the reason why Mr. Netanyahu is unlikely to unveil any major new overtures to the Palestinians during his Washington trip.
“We need to sort through these issues as we consider the next steps on a peace process,” Mr. Rhodes said. The May 20 Obama-Netanyahu meeting “is a chance for the U.S. and Israel to review the full range of issues, from Iran to the regional change to the peace process.”
Arab officials and Mideast peace advocates say there are major risks for the U.S. and Israel in delaying a return to talks.
Mr. Abbas is pressing the United Nations to recognize an independent Palestinian state during the September gathering of the General Assembly. He has specifically cited his frustration with the lack of progress in negotiations with Mr. Netanyahu, as well as the rising expectations among his own people as a result of the Arab Spring.
“There’s clearly a lot going on in the region, and there’s a case to be made and some are making it, that now is not the time,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder of J-Street, a U.S. lobbying group that advocates Washington laying out its own peace plan, something Israel’s government opposes. “But we do believe that the only way to avoid U.N. action on a Palestinian state in a unilateral kind of way is for either the president or prime minister to put forward” a peace plan.
A number of lawmakers have cited Hamas’s new alliance with Mr. Abbas as reason for the White House to move slowly in restarting the peace process. Mr. Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress during his Washington visit as well the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the U.S.’s most powerful pro-Israel lobby.
Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, on Tuesday broke with Israel’s policy of keeping quiet on the regional turmoil, saying the international community’s response to repression of demonstrations in Syria, Lybia and Yemen has been “inconsistent” and “confusing.” In remarks delivered before Mr. Netanyahu’s scheduled White House visit, Mr. Lieberman added that the confusion sends a “damaging message to the people of the Middle East, and further erodes the path to peace, security and democracy for our region.”
Mr. Obama is also scheduled to meet Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Washington next week. The Arab monarch has been at the forefront of Mideast leaders calling for the U.S. to impose its own peace plan on the Israelis and Palestinians. Jordan’s population is 60% Palestinian, and the king has faced his own popular protests in recent months.
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