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Obama’s Cairo’s speech: A compilation of views

By Sol Salbe
Created 13/06/2009 - 00:51

Obama’s Cairo’s speech: A compilation of views
by Sol Salbe [0]

Barak Obama’s Cairo speech to the Muslim world has generated a huge amount of commentary. The following is intended as an overview some of the more interesting points raised.

A recurring theme in the discussion, from both friends and opponents of Obama is that it is only words. What counts are the deeds. But as Richard Silverstein wrote in his blog [1]:

Now, there may be some out there who are not believers when it comes to Obama. They may say that this is all words and only deeds matter. And they would be right. But in all my decades of life I’ve come to understand that words lead to deeds. Words come first. Without them there can be no action.

Silverstein notes Obama’s use of the word of Palestine, rather than a “future Palestinian State. It will be much more difficult for the Palestinians’ opponents to argue that there is no such country as Palestine. Others have noted many other nuances of the language. The president talked a about Israel as a Jewish Homeland, rather than a Jewish state. He too takes the point of view that the nature of the state of Israel is something for Israelis to determine. That certainly pulled the rug from the Barak-Netanyahu insistence on the Palestinians recognising Israel as a Jewish state as either a pre-condition or an outcome of any peace negotiations.

As many observers have observed the words terror, terrorism or terrorist were totally missing form the speech.

By speaking of Palestinian resistance (while opposing violent methods pursued towards that aim) Barak Obama has changed the entire paradigm. By comparing it to the civil-rights struggle by US back and the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa he has overnight legitimatised that resistance. For the past decade or so he official Israeli line has been that Israel, like the West is opposed by people motivated by religious fanaticism. Those who persist in this line of argument are going to find that a large proportion of their audience is not going to take seriously. The mainstream has been lost to this kind of argument.

Even-handedness

Among other notions in his speech Obama introduced a new kind of even-handedness to the US relations with Israeli and Palestinians. Friendly relations are no longer automatic. “America will align its policies with those who seek peace – Israelis, Palestinians or Arabs," he said. Everyone will be judged on their records and it will be Washington who will decide who is seeking peace, not Israel. Akiva Eldar explained further in Haaretz [2]:

Obama left Egypt with two tablets of the commandments - one for Jews and the other for Muslims. He left no room for doubt: An Israel that continues to discriminate against Palestinians and prevent them from exercising their rights to self-determination and freedom of movement cannot expect affirmative action from the US.

Eldar also noted some powerful comments in the speech:

Obama placed violence against Israel on a par with the settlements and the humiliation of Palestinians in the territories. He spoke in the same breath about the struggle of Palestinians who lost their homes more than 60 years ago and the struggle of African slaves in the U.S. The Israelis could see themselves in the sentence that mentioned the apartheid state of South Africa.

Critics

There is no point going over the pro-settler and Israeli Right’s critique of the speech. Their attacks on the “nigger-boy” and posters of Obama with in a Keffiyeh are not going to earn them any friends, and in fact will alienate all but their most hard-line supporters. Referring to President Hussein who has tricked 72 per cent of US Jews to vote for him is going to just as counter productive.

Some Palestinian critics as well pro-Palestinian and left-wing supporters concentrated their attention on the negative points. Obama was indeed less than honest in suggesting that the ANC never used violence in South Africa. There was certainly a lack of candour in telling others not to use violence while pursuing wars. As a letter writer pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald the idea that violence does not succeed in gaining national liberation would have probably been news to George Washington.

Probably the most intellectually rigorous of these critics was Ali Abunimah [3] of the Electronic Intifada in his Comment is Free contribution in the Guardian, which is worth reading, even if like me, you disagree with a lot of it.

But even if one were to accept every single one of Abunimah’s criticism it is still a matter of looking at the empty half of the glass rather then the full half. The point is that the glass is not static. Six months ago it wasn’t empty – it had a negative quantity in it! One needs to look at the context and dynamics of the glass. Barak Obama went as far any US President could go and then some. And nothing illustrates that better than the issues of settlements. The point was hammered in the speech. Some like Israeli blogger Ami Isseroff [4] thought they noted an ungrammatical formulation:

There was at least one great departure from traditional US policy, couched in most peculiar and ungrammatical language, but clear enough:

The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

It is hard to believe that a document that was gone though with a fine toothcomb and in which every word was subject to consultation would contain an ungrammatical formulation. I tend to go along with South Jerusalem’s Gershom Gorenberg [5]:

The wording here is either a bit sloppy, or deliberately ambiguous. He’s saying construction must stop. Is he also saying that settlement as such must end, that settlements must be evacuated? I suspect that settler leaders heard it that way. For once (it had to happen), they’re right. The president is telling them that he opposes not just the next house, but the entire enterprise.

But Obama did not stop at his speech. He has been on message in regard to the settlements both before and after speech. And he received support on this account from President Sarkozy of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany. His Secretary of State Hilary Clinton reinforced the message. Haaretz [6] reported:

Dov Weisglass, chief of staff to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, wrote in an op-ed piece published this week in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily that the Bush administration had secretly agreed to expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank within their existing boundaries.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, Clinton sought to undercut Weisglass' argument, saying there was no acknowledgment of any such agreement in the official negotiating record between Israel and the Bush administration.

"There is no memorialization of any informal and oral agreements. If they did occur, which of course people say they did, they did not become part of the official position of the United States government."

The context issue was also highlighted by one of Israel most senior reporters Ben Caspit of Ma’ariv [7] (Hebrew):

Shortly before he met Defense Minister Ehud Barak, special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell met in New York with a prominent Jewish leader. In the nature of things, the conversation focused on the developing confrontation between the two new administrations in Washington and in Jerusalem. “Our policy is simple,” Mitchell said, summing up the statements in a single sentence. “The Israelis lied to us all these years. And now it’s over.”

[Emphasis added.]

To me it seems as if US pressure on the issue is increasing even if it is only summed up in words so far.

There is a delicious irony in the person whom the Israelis blame for this US attitude: " Binyamin Netanyahu’s associates believe that our main foe in the White House is Rahm Emanuel."

Yossi Verter in Haaretz [8] had more to say on this very subject:

Netanyahu has told people that no matter what he says to Obama, it will never satisfy the American president and his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who in Netanyahu's circle is already being depicted as the "great Satan."

Emanuel’s appointment was greeted by many on the left as Obama’s first betrayal. May be there is a lesson here: Things are not always what they seem in politics…

Another lesson was outlined by American-Israeli writer Bernard Avishai [9]. Speaking about the settlers and their supporters in Israeli politics he wrote:

In the end they will have to be confronted. But though the end cannot be allowed to seem far away, the end is not the beginning. Why push people into a corner before showing them the corner – before showing them also the people who will be pushing with you? Why not take things in their natural sequence which allows everybody to adjust to the new reality?

For Israel the outcome is clear enough as Haaretz [10]’s Aluf Benn explained:

Having proclaimed this loud and clear, there is no way that Obama can still agree to "natural growth" and other tricks designed to increase construction in the settlements. Now his credibility is on the line. It's his word against Israel's resolve to keep building. And this means that if Obama does exhibit the patience with which he promised to deal with the conflict, Israel will be facing a political crisis and a serious internal rift.


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