Correction: The original version of the below column incorrectly referred to ELLIOT COHEN, who worked in the State Department. It should have read ELLIOT ABRAMS, as it now does.

President Barack Obama’s eloquent Cairo speech was distinguished by the quality of his previous major speeches, that of speaking as an adult to adults. He promised to say what he thought, and did so on all of the topics he addressed. He was not a comfortable guest for the Egyptian government, although a courteous and honest one.

He said things many of his listeners would have preferred not to hear, among them his host, President Hosni Mubarak, to whom he indirectly recommended non-repressive domestic policies with freedom of speech, a suggestion that if followed could terminate the career of the Egyptian president, and abort that of his son and presumptive successor.

Obama’s newsworthy statement was his adamant reiteration of his conviction that Israeli settlement expansion must be halted, in conformance with the commitment made by Israel in the road map agreement, and that an independent Palestinian state must come into being.

This uncompromising declaration is a blow to the Netanyahu government in Israel, which has expected its political influence inside the United States to prevent the Obama administration’s interference with its expansion of Jewish colonization of annexed Palestinian territories.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made continued illegal expansion into Palestinian lands the policy of his government. He declares his policy is never to accept a Palestinian state. He speaks of an arrangement by which residual Palestinian-occupied territory could become an economic dependency of Israel, but under no circumstances sovereign.

With his American upbringing, he long has traded in Israeli politics on his supposed ability to “read” American politics, and get his way by bluff and threat, and blackmail when necessary, should an American government reject Israeli government demands.

This time he has miscalculated, mistaking President Obama’s determination, and probably mis-estimating the American political and popular mood. During the Bush years, the cost to American national interests and reputation in the Middle East of uncritical support for Israel became so blatant that a significant shift in public opinion has occurred.

This is certainly true in serious American circles, in the past aware of the damage being done to American interests. But the control of Congress by the so-called Israel lobby (Likud lobby is closer to the truth, since the right wing of the Israeli political spectrum has for years controlled the public presentation of the Israeli case in the United States) has made protest seem futile, and dangerous to political and academic careers.

This no longer is entirely true, in part due to the calm discussion of the lobby by the John Mearsheimer-Stephen Walt book two years ago, the growing willingness of a part of the press to deal with the issue honestly, and the effect of events themselves in the Middle East.

The invasion of Lebanon two years ago and the assault on Gaza last year were not episodes that won the sympathy of very many serious American political observers, and they shocked a significant part of American public opinion.

We are at an interesting point. Israeli voters elected Netanyahu. But this electorate is said to be deeply discouraged over the possibility of peace with the Arabs. There is a significant drain of the Ashkenazim population toward Europe and the United States, and a steady growth in millenarian-minded, ultra-Orthodox immigrants coming to witness the Last Times and the Messiah’s arrival. A third of the settler population is composed of American sectarian Orthodox Jews.

The Israeli prime minister is now trapped, since Obama has called his bluff. His friends complain that Obama is not living up to a Bush administration promise that the road map agreement was just a scrap of paper Israel could ignore.

They say they had that assurance from Elliot Abrams and Stephen J. Hadley. But if they were foolish enough to think that a new Obama administration would value the secret and illegal advice of secondary and notoriously pro-Israel figures in the Bush administration over the signed documents of the Israeli and American governments, they were, in the phrase, kidding themselves.

Time seems to be up for duplicity. Yet there now are nearly a half-million people in the illegal settlements, caught between the encouragement of Netanyahu and his American Likud allies, and the American government of Barack Obama. What will they now do?

The second noteworthy declaration by Obama was that he intends to withdraw all American military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan; to establish no American bases there; and to demand no privileged access to the region’s resources.

This is surely as much of a blow to Pentagon planners as his statement to Israel was to the settler community. It would seem a renouncement of the American military program of world-girdling strategic bases, pursued for the past 30 years. It comes as more of a surprise than the Obama statement concerning Israel. It could be much more important to America and its future. One awaits elaboration.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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