Obama’s Cairo speech –

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b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
June 8, 2009 Edition 22

Palestinian-Israeli crossfire

Obama’s Cairo speech
. A level US-Arab playing field

by Yossi Alpher

The message was quantitative.

. Waiting expectantly

by Ghassan Khatib

Too many times burned, most observers received the speech with a wait-and-see attitude.

. Trust is not enough

by Saul Singer

Why can’t we all just get along?, Americans want to know.

. A breeze of change

by Ali Jarbawi

Palestinians must be facilitators, not spoilers.


A level US-Arab playing field

by Yossi Alpher

US President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last week devoted unusual emphasis to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this respect, the message was quantitative. Obama never mentioned the prospect of an Israeli-Syrian peace process and he devoted barely a sentence to the Arab Peace Initiative and little more to key issues like democratization and women’s rights. But the Israeli-Palestinian issue got huge play, clearly reflecting the US administration’s recognition of its centrality to the Arab discourse and decision to concentrate on it in the months ahead.

The speech also presented a calculated effort to balance statements deemed friendly to Israel with those friendly to the Palestinian and Arab cause in general. Israel got a "Jewish homeland"; Palestinians an end to the occupation, a two-state solution and repeated use of the term "Palestine". Hamas was told to accept the Quartet’s three conditions, but Israel was told to end the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Arabs were asked to recognize Israel’s right to exist, abandon violence, end Holocaust denial and cease using the conflict as a distraction from other problems; Israel was told to freeze settlement construction and remove outposts. Arabs were informed that the Arab Peace Initiative is "an important beginning, but not the end of [Arab states’] responsibilities"; Israelis noticed that Obama never used the words "terrorism" and "normalization" even as he talked at length about these very issue areas.

At a broader level, the speech appeared to be an attempt to cultivate the more moderate forces of political Islam, offering dialogue to anyone who is "peaceful and law-abiding" and, perhaps symbolically, repeatedly recognizing women’s right to wear the hijab. It barely confronted Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons and seemingly hinted at Israel in presenting a demand to eliminate all nuclear weapons (from the region? from the world?).

The speech also, not once but twice, referred to the need for Palestinians, with Arab help, to develop their "capacity to govern" and build the "institutions that will sustain their state". Herein lies an important message to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. While Obama insists that Netanyahu endorse the two-state solution and cease settlement expansion–two very problematic demands for this Israeli coalition–he also seemingly endorses Netanyahu’s vision of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process built from the bottom up, with special emphasis on institution-building.

Netanyahu can also find solace in Obama’s avoidance of presenting a major new Israel-Arab peace initiative that the current Israeli governing coalition would find hard to digest. That may still be in the works, particularly if Netanyahu fails to come up with a viable initiative of his own (he has now committed to present his own plan next Sunday). Meanwhile, in view of Obama’s demand that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist, cease violence and accept past agreements, the likelihood of the Palestinians fielding a united and viable negotiating team in the near future is low. That means that it will be extremely difficult to translate Obama’s vision into a peace process.

Obama set out in Cairo to reverse the damage wrought by eight years of the George W. Bush administration: to level the playing field between the US and the Arab world, between Americans and Muslims. This largely explains the extensive retelling of America’s interaction with the Muslim world, juxtapositions like Holocaust/ Nakba and the indirect comparison between the saga of blacks in America and the plight of the Palestinians.

Many Israelis and supporters of Israel are inevitably uncomfortable with these themes, which can be construed to adopt the Palestinian narrative without recourse to historic criteria and objective analysis. By the by, it is easy to ignore how this way of dealing with the issues also facilitated Obama’s exhortation to Arabs "to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past" and his recommendation to the Palestinians to adopt non-violence.

If Obama’s approach does the job of restoring American credibility and boosting his moral authority in the Middle East, the exercise may prove useful. This could happen if and when this US president exercises that authority at critical times ahead, for example to persuade the Palestinians to drop their demand for the right of return or to rally Arab countries, alongside Israel, against Iran and its allies.- Published 8/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.


Waiting expectantly

by Ghassan Khatib

The speech delivered by US President Barack Obama in Cairo last week was impressive in intent, taking on the great rift that now divides the United States and the Arab and Islamic world. Its main impact, however, was to generate cautious optimism. Too many times burned, most observers received the speech with a wait-and-see attitude, hoping for practical implementation of these expansive new ideas.

Obama’s speech can be divided into two spheres: the first was general and conceptual, engaging the relationship between the American people and US administration and the Arab and Islamic world. The other was practical, concentrating on the Arab-Israel conflict and Iranian-American tensions.

Dealing with the first–and more prominent–level, the president showed a depth of understanding and used language that were together a marked departure from the approach of the previous administration. Political ideology, and the September 11 events, led the previous administration to deal with problems in the region–including "terrorism"–as solely technical, and related to security and the military. This approach produced superficial and wrong-headed diagnoses and treatments, and deepened negative attitudes in the region toward the American government.

Obama’s speech went much deeper than others in diagnosing regional problems, referring, for example, to the negative impact of globalization in the region, which has swept in western cultural domination and all the resulting negative social and economic implications. This nod, together with prescriptions for improving and investing in education and women’s issues, shows a level of understanding that the people of the region are not used to in American rhetoric.

On the Arab-Israel conflict, the speech was also successful. Obama used the term "occupation", which has been intentionally banished from western diplomatic language for at least a decade. He also referenced the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees–their loss and displacement. And most importantly, he used clear language criticizing Israel’s settlement expansion and the need for it to stop.

People in this region have a long and negative experience with changing rhetoric, verbal declarations and politicians’ waffling over this conflict. All the while, however, the trend on the ground is for the worse. This has left the region’s peoples, especially Palestinians, unable and unwilling to build their hopes on words. We need concrete and practical change in our daily lives to convince us that it is, in fact, possible to end Israel’s occupation.

The US administration will now face the inevitable contradiction between its refreshingly strong insistence that Israel stop all settlement expansion and the continuous construction underway in the settlements–nails driven in place and cement poured at the very moments that Obama was speaking. In other words, the credibility of the US president is on the line in the region–first and foremost over the issue of Israeli settlements.

But also important to realizing the vision presented in Obama’s speech is the creation of local political realities more conducive to political progress. Yes, that means encouraging and empowering the Palestinian peace camp, but it also means supporting Palestinian dialogue between the factions by offering incentives, and encouraging Hamas to become part of the legitimate political system rather than forcing it out. Hints of this direction were to be found in Obama’s speech. Now we wait to see what he will do. – Published 8/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.


Trust is not enough

by Saul Singer

President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech embodied the paradox of the modern age: the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world is also the most idealistic. One face of America is that of strength and confidence. Obama displayed another face of America that is no less essential: that of humility, honesty and innocence.

"All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time," Obama said. "The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to a sustained effort to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings."

Why can’t we all just get along?, Americans want to know. This sort of "innocents abroad" approach was mixed with an apologetics, lavish praise for Islam and extreme moral juxtapositions–such as comparing the Holocaust to the suffering of Palestinians and placing Israel in the role of oppressors as in South Africa under apartheid or American blacks suffering the "lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation".

On the other hand, Obama had some blunt words for the Arab world: "Palestinians must abandon violence. . . . It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered. Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build."

And this: "Finally, the Arab states must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities. The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state; to recognize Israel’s legitimacy; and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past."

This is greatly understating the matter. Since this was an opportunity to boldly tell the truth, he should have said to the Palestinians and the Arab states: "The dream of a Palestinian state is in your hands. It is the Arab world that has repeatedly rejected the partition of Palestine–in 1937, 1947, 1967 and 2000. If the Arab world steps forward and accepts the legitimate right of the Jewish people to a state in their land alongside an independent Palestine, the people and government of Israel will embrace peace, as they did with Egypt and Jordan."

Though Obama did not go that far, his call on the Arab states to do more could be an important step toward a more realistic policy. Yet the speech was not really about policy, but more a pressing of a rhetorical "reset" button. It is as if Obama has looked at the world and determined that what is lacking is inspiration, humility and vision. He used the word "mistrust" four times. Obama’s proposed remedy: "a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground."

But the focus on trust is a misdiagnosis. Would it were true that the world is suffering from a vast misunderstanding. Totalitarian movements–such as Nazism, Communism, and Islamism–do not attack, kill, oppress and expand because of a lack of trust.

Obama comes from Chicago, a place that has suffered from organized crime. Imagine that the mob controls half the city, imposing tremendous fear and poverty on millions of citizens. Next imagine the mayor making a long-awaited foray into the heart of this troubled area and calling for a new start and a better way of life.

Before such a speech, the mobsters might have been worried that the mayor would take them on, and the people hopeful for the same reason. But both sides would simply be mystified if the mayor came in and said, first, I’m not the mayor, second, sorry for bothering you and third, you really should stop fighting and behaving so badly–all without clearly mentioning the mobsters and sometimes even sounding like the people and mobsters were equally to blame.

The purpose of the Cairo speech, it seems, was to prove that the US means well. Now, however, it will be harder than before for the US to prove that it means business. In a mob-dominated neighborhood, the people only want to know one thing: is someone going to help us get rid of these thugs or not?

The danger is that moderate Arab leaders will take Obama’s speech to mean 1) the pressure is off on us to liberalize and 2) we’re on our own because Iran is going nuclear. The Arab people will similarly conclude that America is retreating and will not stand with them against their sclerotic governments or the spread of Islamism.

The only way Obama will convince them otherwise is if he suddenly shows that the US will put muscle behind its vision. In an interview with Newsweek last month, Obama said of his outreach to Iran, "if it doesn’t work, the fact that we have tried will strengthen our position in mobilizing the international community," presumably to impose draconian sanctions on Iran. This sort of stick was completely absent from the Cairo speech.

If there was a doubt, Obama has succeeded in proving that he is not George Bush. Yet the world has not changed. The mullahs continue to build their centrifuges, stoke terrorism and galvanize their veto power over any peace process. The Arab states will not risk reaching out to Israel under the cloud of a nuclear Iran. Building trust with the peoples of the region will not address their predicament. The future of Obama’s vision depends on whether he believes that trust alone will work, or if he understands that trust must be used to mobilize free and threatened nations to take effective action.- Published 8/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Saul Singer is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and co-author of the forthcoming book "Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle".


A breeze of change

by Ali Jarbawi

The conciliatory tone of US President Barack Obama’s speech delivered in Cairo has attracted widespread praise. Many skeptics, however, are asking if and how these words will be translated into action, particularly in relation to the Arab-Israel conflict.

The recent history of US engagement in Israel-Arab relations provides grounds for skepticism. However, this speech and other preparatory actions taken by this new US president do offer some encouragement to those who seek a more even-handed approach from the US. It is essential that the Arabs and Palestinians give President Obama the benefit of the doubt, at least for a limited period, and avoid acting as spoilers of his declared intention to be an honest broker.

Ordinary citizens, as well as seasoned analysts, began poring over the text of Obama’s speech from the moment it was first posted on the web, just minutes after he left the podium at al-Azhar University. They are finding many examples of Obama’s intention to be frank and even-handed.

He made a direct link, in consecutive paragraphs, between the tragedy of the Nakba and the Shoah. He unequivocally called for a Palestinian state and used the word "Palestine"–something that previous US presidents have avoided. In addition to repeating his demand for an end to the settlement enterprise, he stopped short of supporting the concept of a Jewish state, preferring the term "Jewish homeland". He effectively called upon Palestinians to pursue peaceful resistance, whilst equating their struggle for rights and freedom to that of black Americans and South Africans. There was even an acknowledgement of Hamas’ legitimacy as a representative of the Palestinian people.

And he didn’t use the word "terrorism"–not once in 6,000 words lasting 56 minutes. These are not coincidences or missteps. This president and his speechwriters are well aware of the novelty of these messages coming from the US leadership; and they are cognizant of the disquiet they will cause among the Israeli political and military leadership and the settler communities.

Obama has also made some significant gestures in the way he has related to the Arab world, Palestine and Israel since taking office less than five months ago. King Abdullah of Jordan, a sharp critic of the new rightist Israeli government who speaks openly of his distaste for Binyamin Netanyahu, was the first Middle East leader to be welcomed into Obama’s White House. The US president overflew Israel on his way to Cairo last week and won’t be paying Netanyahu a visit for a while yet. The president has also appointed a slew of advisers and staffers who have a history of taking an uncompromising line on settlements, most notably Special Envoy George Mitchell and National Security Adviser General Jim Jones. And Obama’s chief of staff has been vilified by Israelis as a "self-hater" for his perceived role in formulating "anti-Israel" US policies.

US domestic political commentators who have observed Obama’s career closely repeatedly refer to his genuine interest in the experience–and often suffering–of the ordinary citizen. This interest has been given its most recent expression in his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. She is undoubtedly a woman of great intellect, but also a woman of the world who has a deep appreciation of how it feels to be at the bottom of the pile. In hearing his words in Cairo, in particular his description of the suffering of Palestinians, one wonders if he is the first US president in a long time to sense the brutality and the injustice of the occupation.

In his speech, Obama quite rightly pointed to the responsibilities that Arabs and Palestinians share in helping bring an end to the conflict and building the state of Palestine. Palestinian unity is an imperative regardless of Obama’s speech. Even if Obama does not fulfill his early promise, we must be united.

However, if his words are truly to be translated to deeds, Palestinians must be facilitators, not spoilers. If we remain divided, we run the serious risk of being labeled the opponents of peace. This does not mean we have to relinquish our resistance to the occupation, but we do need to pursue resistance more intelligently. It also does not mean that we should allow ourselves to be dragged back into open-ended negotiations. The US, Israel and the broader international community need to understand that there is a limit to our patience, and that we need to see rapid and tangible steps toward dismantling the infrastructure of the occupation.

United Arab support is also essential. As President Obama stated, the Arab Peace Initiative is an important beginning, but not the end of the Arab role. The stability and development of the region depend on concerted Arab support for the establishment of a stable state of Palestine. They will need to expend political capital in their own countries in the long-term interest. However, they need to be persuaded that the price is worth paying. The Arab nations, their leaders and their citizens, need to see an early and tangible return on their investment. They need to see an end to the suffering and indignity that has become part of the daily experience of Palestinians living under occupation.

In his famous "Wind of Change" speech delivered in both Accra and Cape Town in 1960, British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan said, "it is our earnest desire to give South Africa our support and encouragement, but I hope you won’t mind my saying frankly that there are some aspects of your policies which make it impossible for us to do this without being false to our own deep convictions about the political destinies of free men."

This speech marked the beginning in earnest of the British policy of decolonization and a political furor in the United Kingdom, infuriating those determined to hold on to imperial possessions. His words were soon followed by deeds. Let us all hope that the breeze that blew in from Cairo last week rapidly gathers strength.- Published 8/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Ali Jarbawi is minister of planning in the Palestinian Authority.

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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons.org and yossi@bitterlemons.org, respectively.

Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.

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