The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Mideast

We have to wait for the arm-wrestling contest between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama, and for Obama's speech at AIPAC, to see who goes to the final in September.

Once more he gave a speech. And again, the natives listened closely, pulled out their calculators and carefully marked the points the president awarded to each side. A state within the 1967 borders - a point for the Palestinians; chastising Hamas - a point for Israel; belittling the demand for recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations - three points for Israel; support for the Palestinians' political and civil rights - 1.5 points for the Palestinians.

But it's too early to add up the points. We're still only in the quarterfinals. We have to wait for the arm-wrestling contest between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama, and for Obama's speech at AIPAC, to see who goes to the final in September. Then the really important game begins, and it won't only be between Israel and the Palestinians. The United States and Israel will be on one side, with the Palestinians and the rest of the world on the other.

On one side will be that same Arab public that Obama is suddenly so fond of, which will demonstrate in the streets of Cairo, Amman, Damascus and Riyadh in favor of recognizing a Palestinian state, and which will rally important European countries to its side. On the other side will be the United States, which will have to reread Obama's speech. It will have to read and explain how we can resolve the contradiction between the unequivocal right of nations to self-determination and the rejection of recognition of an independent Palestinian state.

Obama's speech is still a very important text in a region that has been conditioned to rely on every utterance by a U.S. president to determine reality. But it's not too late to note that the United States is perhaps still unwilling to determine reality. It's still focusing on the role of quality controller - one who examines the extent changes in the region have succeeded. It examines who is or isn't a worthy leader (Obama on Assad: "He can lead that transition, or get out of the way" ). It examines which processes have a chance to succeed and which don't ("Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state" ). And of course, it considers which universal values oblige the demonstrating natives.

The United States - and Obama expressed this brilliantly in his speech - is a hitchhiker in the new region. The civil uprisings that broke out in Tunisia and Egypt did not occur because of the United States but in spite of it; the U.S. had considered Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak allies. The civil war in Libya stirred a serious disagreement between Europe and the United States over the use of force, without either side having an idea about the outcome of the fighting.

On Saudi Arabia, that liberal country for which democratic values are guiding lights, not a single word was uttered in Obama's speech. The hitchhiker did reprimand Bahrain for suppressing the rights of the Shi'ites, but he avoided mentioning Saudi Arabia, which sent a force to Bahrain to put down the Shi'ite uprising. The campaign in Iraq, "a war of choice," as Obama described it in 2009, is expected to wrap up for the United States, and calls are already being heard about abandoning the Afghanistan quagmire.

This is also the case regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The familiar misleading formula in which the United States can't want peace more than the parties themselves was reiterated in Obama's speech wrapped in flowery language. The text was full of references that Israel or the Palestinians "should know," but what must the United States know? That the end of the conflict is not an essential U.S. interest?

Is it really possible that the United States can't or shouldn't want peace more than the sides? Or that peace, as Obama said, can't be imposed on the sides, just as democracy can't be imposed? This is the hitchhiker's approach, which a superpower that is capable of going to full-blown war for lofty ideals can't allow itself to adopt.

A superpower that considers "nation building" in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia as essential for stability and security can't turn its back on things when it comes to the Palestinians. A superpower that encouraged dialogue with the Taliban and Sunni insurgents in Iraq, and which considers the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt a legitimate partner in government, can't unequivocally adopt the argument that there can't be a Palestinian government in which Hamas is a partner.

On the other hand, hitchhikers, like guests, don't rearrange the furniture in their host's house. At most, they can show dissatisfaction or suggest, very gently, that changes should be made. Obama is turning out to be the ultimate hitchhiker.