Friday, June 5, 2009

Signs of Hope in President Obama’s Cairo Speech?

Yesterday President Obama delivered his much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt. As we've noted in previous posts, he devoted a considerable portion of his speech to Palestine/Israel, the transcript of which you can find here. Below, we provide an analysis of the President’s remarks. Make sure you check out our website for action ideas to translate this speech into tangible change in U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine. Empathy for the Palestinian narrative. In his speech, President Obama broke new ground for a sitting U.S. President by displaying considerable empathy for the Palestinian narrative. He recognized that the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people is “undeniable.” He acknowledged the “daily humiliations” of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. And he made mention of Palestinian refugees who for more than 60 years have “endured the pain of dislocation” and who “wait in refugee camps…for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead,” although unfortunately he fell short of acknowledging the Palestinian refugees’ internationally-recognized right of return. Nevertheless, President Obama summed it up by calling the situation for Palestinians “intolerable.” Also noteworthy was the President’s implicit comparison of the struggle for Palestinian rights with the struggle against slavery and racial discrimination in the United States and against apartheid in South Africa. Although this comparison came within the context of a one-sided call for Palestinians to abandon violence (with no concomitant call for Israel to abandon its much more deadly violence against Palestinians), by mentioning these struggles it appears that President Obama views the Palestinians as an oppressed people whose plight is similar to those of other oppressed peoples, a true departure in thinking for a sitting U.S. President. Two-State Framework. In Cairo, President Obama reiterated his antidote for this “intolerable” situation: “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.” While the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation takes no position on whether there should be a two-state or one-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we do raise critical concerns about whether a U.S.-backed two-state solution will lead to a just and lasting peace based on human rights, international law, and equality. While President Obama ratcheted up his critique of Israeli settlements during his Cairo speech, stating that the United States does not accept their “legitimacy,” this formulation still falls short of President Jimmy Carter’s stance deeming Israeli settlements “illegal,” as they are according to the Fourth Geneva Convention. The President’s increasingly adamant calls for Israel to stop expanding settlements in conjunction with its obligations under the “road map” is certainly a positive step; however, he is still very far from demanding and exerting pressure on Israel to dismantle all of its illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a fundamental prerequisite if the two-state solution has any chance of success. A two-state solution might meet some of the “legitimate aspirations” of Palestinians currently living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip. However, it is highly doubtful that such a solution would fulfill the “legitimate aspirations” of Palestinian citizens of Israel who suffer from institutionalized discrimination or Palestinian refugees whose plight, but not rights, the President recognized in his speech. On the one hand, on the other. President Obama’s empathy with the Palestinian narrative and acknowledgment that both Israelis and Palestinians are “two peoples with legitimate aspirations” is certainly an advance over traditional U.S. discourse which over the decades has primarily portrayed Israel as an innocent victim and either downplayed or ignored Palestinian human and national rights. However, there is a danger that the “both sides” rhetoric—“It’s easy to point fingers,” and “if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth,” for example—President Obama employed obscures the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never been one of equals. It has been and continues to be today a conflict of Israel, an apartheid state that institutionalizes discrimination against non-Jews, versus Palestinians, a people dispossessed of their homeland through ethnic cleansing. In the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, for the last 42 years it has been and continues to be a conflict of Israel, an Occupying Power defying international law and the Geneva Conventions, versus an Occupied People, the Palestinians who struggle daily to maintain their existence in the face of widespread and systematic human rights abuses by Israel. Within this framework, it is intellectually dishonest for President Obama to ask Palestinians to give up violence without asking the same of Israel. (In fact, Palestinian civil society is engaging in nonviolent campaigns of boycott, divestment, and sanctions to advocate for their rights, a call which we support.) It is unrealistic and even cruel to ask Palestinians “to focus on what they can build” when Israel systematically destroys Palestinian civilian infrastructure and maintains a siege of the Gaza Strip under which Palestinians have difficulty importing pasta, much less necessary things like concrete to rebuild after Israel’s devastating attacks that left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead and thousands of buildings destroyed. President Obama must do more than just ask Israel “to take concrete steps to enable such progress” toward Palestinian economic opportunity; he must recognize instead that as long as Israel maintains its brutal occupation and siege of Palestinian territories, then Palestinian institution-building and economic development are impossible. Where is the United States? Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of President Obama’s speech was his failure to acknowledge the destructive and biased role that the United States has played and continues to play today in perpetuating the “intolerable” situation he alluded to. It’s not as if President Obama is incapable of recognizing and acknowledging U.S. mistakes. In other sections of his speech in Cairo, he candidly referred to the war on Iraq as a “war of choice” and honestly referenced the fact that the “United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Missing from his speech however was any similar recognition that U.S. policy has directly contributed to the impasse in Israel/Palestine. By providing Israel with more than $100 billion in economic and military aid since 1949 and by consistently vetoing UN resolutions to bring Israel into compliance with international law and human rights standards, the United States is the central player enabling Israel to continue its brutal treatment of the Palestinian people. Also absent from the President’s speech was any hint that he is prepared to exert pressure on Israel to achieve his goals. While words are extremely important in setting frameworks for policy debates and while we should rightfully views certain aspects of President Obama’s speech as advances, rhetoric alone will not change the behavior of other nations. To do so, the United States should use its leverage, and with Israel we have a lot of it. President Obama has requested $2.775 billion in military aid for Israel in his FY2010 budget request, which now is in front of the Appropriations Subcommittees on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. This is where we come into the picture. We have the power to help take the shifting discourse on U.S. policy toward Palestine/Israel that we are witnessing and translate it into actual policy change. Please take some time to read over and act on the ideas below on what you can do to organize and advocate with us to end military aid to Israel and help us bring about a profound change in policy. Together we can generate the political strength to help bring about the goal President Obama articulated yesterday in Cairo, a goal in which we believe: “All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of the three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra -- (applause) -- as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, peace be upon them, joined in prayer.” Click here to take action to transform a change in discourse into a change in policy!