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Obama’s Middle East Speech: He Just Didn’t Get It – OpEd


I’ve listened to (start at around the 5:00 mark to avoid Hillary’s intro) and read Barack Obama’s Middle East speech.  And while it has many good points that are worth praising, overall for the entire region I think the proof will lie in how or if what he says is implemented on the ground.  After a disappointing follow-up to the Cairo speech, I’m not prepared yet to say that what Obama said today augurs well for U.S. policy in the region.  It might.  But if we continue to dither as we have at key junctures, all the golden words and sentiments will be nothing but words supported by no action.

But mostly I want to focus on the Israeli-Arab section of the speech, which was disappointing.  Yes, it reaffirmed U.S. commitment to 1967 lines as the basis of a settlement and condemned Israel’s continuing settlement enterprise.  In some other ways, it did not stake out a knee jerk pro-Israel position regarding issues like Jerusalem and Right of Return.  But in other major ways the speech, and attitudes which informed it, disappointed, and at times profoundly so.

There was the adoption of Israel’s perspective on bogus issues like “delegitimization,” which is a code word for BDS, a movement that promises to becomes stronger and more insistent the longer stalemate lasts (and it will, make no mistake about that).  There was the disappointing perspective on the coming General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood, which Obama misconstrued thus:

Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.

In this, Obama is on the wrong side of history and profoundly so.  Look at the language he used, not even mentioning the word statehood.  Instead, using the condescending, even insulting formulation “symbolic actions.”  Not even conceding that the campaign for such a vote will have anything to do with Palestine and the rights of Palestinians to a state of their own.  Instead calling it an effort “to isolate Israel.”  This is wrong, Mr. President.  Profoundly wrong.

And there were other troubling omissions and lapses like this:

As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself -– by itself -– against any threat.

Here again, we see no awareness that it is often the Israeli military itself that is not a self-protective defender of Israeli security, but rather an aggressor that kills and maims at will.  Where is the recognition that Palestine will need protection from Israeli violence?  Where is the recognition of the need for a balanced security presence that takes the needs of both parties into account?  Why the insistence that Israel “by itself” should be the guarantor of security?  Why the refusal to concede that an international security presence will be needed to create such a sense of safety on both sides?

No, this speech, though it framed itself as taking the interests of both sides into account, was written either by, or with too much input from the Dennis Rosses of the administration.  And the perspective of Dennis Ross will not satisfy the Palestinians.

Returning to the speech, it adopted Israel’s insistence that it is solely a Jewish state and homeland for only one ethnic/religious groups living within its borders, the Jews.  No mention of the 1.5 million non-Jewish citizens. As far as this speech is concerned, they don’t exist.  You have blinders Mr. President as far as Israel’s Palestinian citizens.  And as you yourself said in other parts of this speech, the majority in a society cannot impose its will on a minority and oppress a minority and hope to have a just, stable society.  You said it was wrong for the Sunni minority in Bahrain to impose itself on the Shia minority, and rightfully so.  But you forgot Israel’s Palestinians who, though a minority, are also oppressed inside Israel.  I wonder why?

Further, the speech maintained the Israeli insistence on meaningless, imbalanced pre-conditions like prior recognition of Israel even before negotiations begin.  This is the way in which Obama excludes Hamas from the picture as a viable participant, when he must know that an agreement that attempts to exclude Hamas will never work.

In important ways, the Israel-Palestine portion of this speech was curiously disconnected from the assumptions and principles that informed his discussion of the human rights focus of other elements of the speech. There was no sense that what was happening both in Israel and in neighboring states had any relation to the Arab spring and the call for democracy and freedom. No recognition that just as dictators in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria were and are being called to account, so the same principles and demands hold true regarding Israel. In short, the Arab spring impacts Israel as well since it is part of the Middle East. It cannot duck the geographical place and context in which it lives. Curiously, Pres. Obama did just that.

Finally, the question must be asked in as plain and blunt a way as possible: do Israel and the U.S. even deserve, given these two speeches by the U.S. president and the recent one before the Knesset by Israel’s leader, an opportunity to sit down with Palestinians to negotiate peace?  The answer, I’m profoundly sorry to say is No, they do not.  For if you want to talk about preconditions for negotiations, let’s do that.  On the U.S. and Israeli side there must be recognition of some inalienable principles without which Palestinians cannot even enter into a negotiating process.  And Pres. Obama showed himself profoundly ignorant of where those red lines are in his speech today.

You are going nowhere, Mr. President, and going there fast.

It should be noted that Obama’s poodle, J Street, sure enough as if on cue, published a full page ad in today’s N.Y. Times which also derided the General Assembly vote:

…Recognizing a Palestinian state and negotiating now is in Israel’s best interest…Leaving it to the UN in September is not.

Interestingly, the Time’s quotes an Israeli government source (most likely a member of Bibi’s entourage) saying:

…One Israeli official described as a “train wreck” coming their way a United Nations General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood in September.

Precisely the image I’ve been using here except that I’ve been viewing it as a train of destiny as in:

People get ready there’s a train a-comin’

This article first appeared at Tikun Olam

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Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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