Obama’s Middle East Mission

Less than 24 hours after the U.S. Embassy in Egypt told the New York Times that nothing had been decided about where President Barack Obama would deliver his “Islam speech” in Cairo next Thursday, National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones surprised nobody by confirming to a group of E.U. diplomats in Washington that the venue would be Cairo University.

Two diplomats who were present said that, according to Jones, the president’s much-anticipated address reaching out to the Islamic world would call on Islam and the West to form a new partnership to confront the world’s major problems — including global poverty, a floundering economy and the threat of nuclear proliferation.

Obama’s speech will take into account that he will be addressing a predominantly young audience of several hundred Egyptian students. He will put an emphasis on common challenges facing the emerging generation, both Muslim and Christian. No word on whether and to what extent the speech will tackle the issue of terrorism head on.

Obama will arrive in Cairo after first visiting Saudi Arabia, where his mission, according to knowledgeable Washington sources, is to persuade the Saudi government to become more involved in reviving the Middle East peace process. It’s been seven years since the Saudis launched their own Middle East peace initiative proposing full normalization of relations between the Arab states and Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from Arab lands captured in 1967, the creation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and the right of return for at least some Palestinian refugees.

But the Saudis are said to have been deeply angered by Israel’s war in Gaza last December-January. The fighting killed 1,300 Palestinians, inflamed Arab opinion across the region and created a situation easily exploited by the Saudis’ rival, Shiite Iran, in its drive to fuel Islamic radicalism.

In this context, the Obama administration’s current pressure on the Israelis to stop expanding settlements on the West Bank — notably Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s unusually blunt call for “a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions” — is seen as a boost for Obama’s visit next week to the region.