Obama to lay out new Mideast strategy

WASHINGTON Wed May 11, 2011 12:58pm EDT

President Barack Obama walks across the tarmac after stepping off Air Force One at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, May 10, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Young

President Barack Obama walks across the tarmac after stepping off Air Force One at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, May 10, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Young

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will give a major speech, possibly as early as next week, laying out his new Middle East strategy after the killing of Osama bin Laden and amid upheaval in the Arab world, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

A key sticking point is whether Obama, who gained a boost in global stature with the death of the al Qaeda chief last week, will also use his coming address to present new proposals for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, a source familiar with the administration's internal debate said.

Obama, who will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on May 20, is considering giving the speech before he leaves on a trip to Europe early in the week of May 22, a senior administration official said.

Obama spokesman Jay Carney, speaking at the daily White House briefing, said the president would deliver an address on Middle East policy "fairly soon" but declined to provide further details.

The administration, seeking to counter criticism it has struggled to keep pace with turmoil in the Arab world, has been crafting a new U.S. strategy for the region since shortly after popular uprisings erupted, toppling autocratic rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and engulfing Libya in near-civil war.

The killing of bin Laden in a U.S. raid on his Pakistan compound will give Obama a chance to make the case for Arabs to reject al Qaeda's Islamist militancy and embrace democratic change in a new era of relations with Washington.

Though Obama has made repairing U.S. ties with the Muslim world a key thrust of his foreign policy, one U.S. official said the coming address would be "about political change in the Middle East and North Africa, not about Islam."

Still, by invoking the death of bin Laden -- whose masterminding of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States sparked U.S. military campaigns in two Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan -- Obama will inevitably be speaking to a broader Muslim audience.

"OBAMA DOCTRINE"

The date of Obama's speech has not been set, administration sources stressed. But whatever the timing, it is expected to seek to clarify what has been called the "Obama doctrine," a still-fuzzy prescription for dealing with Middle East unrest.

The message he presented in his Libya speech in late March was that the United States supports protesters' democratic aspirations but will take military action only in concert with allies -- to uphold U.S. interests and deeply held values or where there was an overwhelming humanitarian need.

The speech could come as the Western air campaign is facing criticism for failing to break a stalemate between Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and rebels trying to oust him. The United States is also under pressure to take stronger action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his violent crackdown on protests.

A complicating factor for Obama's speech is whether the time is ripe for him to present new ideas aimed at reviving long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Many Israelis are already unsettled over the implications for the Jewish state from unrest in the broader Middle East, and a new reconciliation deal between the mainstream Palestinian Fatah faction and its rival, the Islamist Hamas movement, has raised further doubts about peace prospects.

Obama's attempts to broker a Middle East peace deal have yielded little since he took office, but he has insisted there is an urgent need to seize the opportunity created by political upheaval in the broader Arab world.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on April 12 that the Obama administration planned a new push to promote comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace in coming weeks.

While there is little doubt Obama will use his meeting with Netanyahu to try to advance Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, it is unclear how hard Obama is willing to push for concessions from a leader with whom he already has strained relations.

That could risk alienating Israel's base of support among the U.S. public and in Congress as well as the influential pro-Israel lobby as Obama seeks re-election in 2012.

Obama's launch of direct peace talks last year went nowhere and he is under pressure to forge a new initiative or face the prospect of the Palestinians seeking the U.N. General Assembly's blessing for a Palestinian state in September.

Netanyahu -- who will address the Congress on May 24 -- is not likely to outline any far-reaching peace proposals, Israeli political sources said.

There had been speculation before the Hamas-Fatah unity deal that Netanyahu -- who heads a right-leaning, pro-settler coalition -- would do so.

But moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's accord with Hamas, which Israel and the United States brand a terrorist organization, has reduced pressure on Netanyahu to act and diminished Obama's leverage for pressing him.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Washington and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Vicki Allen)