Yesterday, American President Barack Obama spoke to a packed audience at Cairo University and called for a new beginning to relations between the US and the Muslim world. Journalists are calling his historic speech “a defining moment in his administration”. The full text of the speech can be found here and on video here.
What strikes me about Obama, and perhaps what makes him such a great orator, is that he certainly knows his audience. Speaking to the Muslim world – 1.5 billion people – Obama quoted the Koran and declared “I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap and share common principles, principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” The Australian reports that Obama spent months soliciting opinions and advice for this audience (see more).
Just a few days ago in relation to Israel Obama declared, “Part of being a good friend is being honest” (see more). To his audience in Cairo he affirmed, “I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must sat openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors”. Many may be critical about what he said in relation to Israel, and this I will go into more detail about later, but President Obama was not afraid to talk about the terrorism and extremism that the free world has been confronting since 11 September 2001. In addressing the war in Afghanistan, he said “despite the costs involved, America’s commitment will not weaken. Indeed, none of us should tolerate these extremists.”
Today’s local newspapers were full of reports on the speech. The Age had Jason Koutsoukis’ article entitled ‘Obama aims for ‘new beginning’ as well as an article by Ethan Bronner entitled ‘US reneging, says Israel’. It’s interesting that in a speech that was 55 minutes long, both articles focused mainly on what Obama’s speech means for Israel and the settlements. The Australian’s offering included ‘Obama reaches out to Muslim world’, ‘Barack calls on his Islamic heritage’ and ‘Palestinians hail Obama’s speech’. The last article has some very noteworthy insight into the different reaction to the speech from Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Obama first acknowledged the “unbreakable” bond between the US and Israel (obviously not met with the same applause as most of the rest of the speech!) and informed the audience that the next day he would be visiting Buchenwald. He declared, “Six million Jews were killed, more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless. It is ignorant, and it is hateful”.
He also acknowledged that “the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own”.
“If we see this conflict from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth. The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security”.
In reference to the roadmap, and perhaps one of the most poignant moments of his address he declared, “The obligations that the parties have agreed to under the Road Map are clear. For peace to come, it is time for them and all of us to live up to our responsibilities… Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding.
This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia, to Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: violence is a dead end. It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children or to blow up old women on a bus. That’s not how moral authority is claimed, that’s how it is surrendered.”
In relation to the settlements Obama stated “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” The issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is not a new one, but it has been particularly highlighted since Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with President Obama just a few weeks ago. The issue is not only related to new illegal settlements but about the natural growth of existing settlements, some that have existed since well before the establishment of the state in 1948. Benny Gal, the secretary of the unauthorized Givat Asaf outpost, presents this perspective: “It’s symptomatic of Western thought… They read so deeply into a situation that in reality, is quite simple. We’re the Jewish people and this is our home, and the Arabs are not going to stop attacking us if we leave Givat Asaf. If Israel pulls back from the settlements, Ben-Gurion Airport will become the next target” (see more).
What happens internally in Israel in regards to the settlements will undoubtedly play itself out. Indeed, opinions are extremely divided, as statements like Benny Gal’s and others highlight, but Israel has proved on not one but two occasions that she is willing to take the painful steps necessary in the pursuit of peace. But the country needs to be reassured that if these steps are taken in this pursuit, they are not taken in vein, and a lasting peace must prevail.
Indeed, the Road Map laid out by the “Quartet” in 2003 does state that the Government of Israel immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001, and, consistent with the Mitchell Report, also freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements). This was required to follow the implementation of Phase I of the Road Map which stated, “Palestinian leadership issues unequivocal statement reiterating Israel’s right to exist in peace and security and calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire to end armed activity and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere. All official Palestinian institutions end incitement against Israel.” It would seem that six years down the track, no one is yet to honour the obligations inherent in the first phase of the Road Map.
What troubled me about Obama’s speech came after the settlement talk. Obama declared that “Israel must also live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society. Just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security, neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be a critical part of a road to peace. And Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.”
With respect, President Obama, without devaluing the rights of the Palestinian people, no country’s security should be dependent on or be held at ransom by the progress of any other group of people. When the Israelis were still in Gaza before the disengagement of 2003, thousands of Palestinians had work thanks to the hothouses and other projects of the Jewish communities living there. I am sure, that a similar situation still exists today in the West Bank.
Further, there was no acknowledgement of the progress happening in the West Bank thanks to Israel’s co-operation. For example, in 2008 it was reported that the West Bank town of Jenin, once a hotbed of terrorist activity, had undergone a “quiet revolution” whereby trained Palestinian security officials have restored order and civilians are planning economic cooperation set to provide thousands of jobs for Palestinians. The plan was to come up with a model that could be implemented all over the future Palestinian State. In cooperation with the neighbouring Gilboa region, the head of the Gilboan regional council Daniel Attar said, “There are two kinds of peace… There is the one on a piece of paper that doesn’t stand up to any test and there is the one built from the bottom up. That is the one we are hoping to build (see more).” This idea of building from the bottom up seems far more effective than empty words.
The Middle Eastern correspondents from our local papers were probably waiting with bated breath for the Israelis to “hammer out the Jewish state’s response”. Perhaps the reality of the short statement will disappoint some of them and the editors who write the headlines. The Government declared, “We share President Obama’s hope that the American effort heralds the beginning of a new era that will bring about an ending to the conflict and lead to Arab recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, living in peace and security in the Middle East… Israel is committed to peace and will make every effort to expand the circle of peace while protecting its interests, especially its national security” (see more). Did the rest of the world expect anything different? Israel also knows her audience.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the speech a “direct, significant and brave appeal in which President Obama elucidated his vision and important universal principles, which he wishes to share with the Muslim world… The speech contains support and encouragement for moderate and peace-seeking parties as well as censure of terror and extremist violence that threaten regional stability and world peace. We praise the president for his commitment to the existence and security of the State of Israel and his clear call for the inclusion of Israel in the region.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann said, “This speech is highly significant because President Obama sees the Road Map and its first stage – the cessation of violence – as a critical step towards a final agreement. As the President says, the connection between the US and Israel is a strong and unbreakable one that will maintain despite times of legitimate disagreement” (see more).
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesman said, “It is a clear and frank speech. It is an innovative political step and a good beginning on which one must build.” Meanwhile, the speech was met by Hamas with a bit more concern. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said, “It had many contradictions, while reflecting tangible change. It is a speech that plays on sentiment and is fill with civilities, which leads us to believe he aimed to embellish America’s image in the world.”
Time will only tell what comes from President Obama’s address, not only in relation to the Israelis and the Palestinians but to the entire Muslim world. The policy’s of the previous administration was not fruitful in regards to the Muslim world, and the change of approach by the Obama administration was necessary, regardless of what comes of it. Once the seats have been emptied and everyone has returned home, the real test will come.
Israel Advocacy Analyst
Zionist Council of Victoria