By any reasonable measure, King Abdullah’s speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress was smart and courageous. He took advantage of being only the fourth Arab leader given this opportunity and chose to do the unexpected. Some observers anticipated that he would focus his remarks on Iraq or appeal for more U.S. aid to his country now providing refuge to almost one million Iraqis. He did not…
Nor were his remarks designed to elicit frequent applause. Instead, he focused his speech on a thoughtful and passionate appeal: the urgent need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
His arguments were compelling. Iraq is of course a critical issue, but it is not, King Abdullah noted, the core issue that roils the region.
“The wellspring of regional division,” he observed, “the cause of resentment and frustration far beyond, is the denial of justice and peace in Palestine.” This, he concluded, is the “core issue… producing severe consequences for our region… and for our world”.
Throughout his remarks he spoke evocatively of Palestinian rights, using words rarely heard in the halls of Congress. Speaking “as a friend who cannot be silent”, he told of “sixty years of Palestinian dispossession” and “forty years under occupation”, creating a “bitter legacy of disappointment and despair”. He called on Congress to support efforts “to restore Palestine, a nation in despair and without hope”.
King Abdullah infused his remarks with a moral and political challenge, reminding Americans of their precarious standing in world public opinion. He noted that Arabs and Muslims often ask “whether the West really means what it says about equality and respect and equal justice” and continued by observing that “nothing can assert America’s moral vision more clearly, nothing can teach the world’s youth more directly than your leadership in a peace process that delivers results not next year, not in five years, but this year”.
The King went on to describe the Arab nations’ collective commitment to peace as expressed in the Beirut Declaration of 2002, which supports a comprehensive resolution to the conflict that includes two states at peace, with normalised relations amongst all countries in the region. (This commitment was corroborated by the results of a recent Zogby International poll conducted in six Arab nations, which found that well over 90 per cent of Arabs support a two-state solution to the conflict).
The King spoke with a sense of urgency, making it clear that the clock was running out for peace to become a reality.
As I said, the thrust and content of the speech were unexpected. There was, of course, applause, and a number of standing ovations. But during long stretches you could hear a pin drop in the crowded chamber.
Some members of Congress with whom I spoke were deeply moved by King Abdullah’s appeal. Of course, there were those who were not.
Comments, both critical and banal, were issued by some who have been long opponents to a just resolution to the conflict. They will, no doubt, continue to find ways to obstruct the search for peace.
But there can be no doubt that the King’s speech made an important contribution. It has empowered and invigorated Arab Americans and American Jews who want peace, and has provided both with important leverage with which to press their case.
The speech also provided food for thought for the small but growing caucus of legislators who are convinced that the King is right — that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a core issue of concern, creating extremism in the Middle East and dividing the U.S. from the Arab world.
They believe that the time for a solution is now, before “facts on the ground”, despair and more violence make such an outcome all but impossible.
There will be those who will find fault with the King’s speech. Some will say it wasn’t balanced enough, while others will argue it was too balanced. But the critics are wrong. King Abdullah used an extraordinary opportunity to deliver an important message. He is to be commended for doing so. The search for an Israeli-Palestinian peace is the core issue, and time is running out. He gave the search for peace his best shot. This is his challenge, to which all of us must now respond.
James J. Zogby is founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI).