Thursday, 30 July 2009

Obama on Arab-Israeli Conflict
Need turning noble words into bold action

Dr. Mozammel Haque

US President Barack Hussein Obama’s speech at the Cairo University calling for a new beginning between US and Muslims was greeted as the most important international affairs pronouncement of Obama's presidency. It was a departure from the Bush era. He has started turning the page on eight years. President Obama has changed the tone of relations between the West and the world of Islam. He did not mention the lethal word ‘terror’ or ‘terrorism’ which became the ‘part of the obscene grammar of the Bush era’.

Not only in relationship between the West and the Muslim world but he also distance himself adequately from the policies of his predecessor on Iraq and Afghanistan. He has taken some strong decision: “He reasserted his plan to keep to a tight withdrawal of all forces from Iraq by 2010. He said he would close the detention centre in Guantanamo Bay by the next year and that America would never again torture terrorist suspects. He pledged to seek a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one,” wrote Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor of The Times on 5 June, 2009.

Palestinian-Israeli conflict
The most controversial and decade-long issue is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is termed by someone as ‘the graveyard of American hopes of bringing any resolution to the world’s most intractable conflict’. But President Obama made it clear in his address at Cairo University and affirmed his commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Obama pledged to pursue Palestinian statehood. The Palestinians had suffered without a homeland. Obama said, “They [Palestinians] endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.”

“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,” said Obama and the US President told the Israelis there had to be a total end to their colonisation in the West Bank. “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.”

“Despite the pressure from the pro-Zionist lobby groups in Washington, the recent visit of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, the new (and young) President has held firm to his public stance that the only way forward is a two-state solution, that Israel should cease all settlement expansion and that the US is ready for direct talks with Iran and Syria,” said Adrian Hamilton in The Independent on Thursday, 4 June 2009.

Obama also said “Israel must take concrete steps” to give the Palestinian progress in their daily lives as part of a road to peace. “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's,” said Obama.

US President did not confine his recognition of Palestinian suffering to the situation since 1967. “For more than 60 years, they have endured the pain of dislocation,” he said, surely coming closer than any previous US president to acknowledging what Palestinians call the nakba – catastrophe – of 1948. And he repeated his demand for Israeli ­settlement activity to stop.

“But make no mistake,” Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Guardian on 4 June, 2009, “this was no exercise in pandering to the Muslim world. He passionately defended Jews' right to a homeland, before condemning Muslim anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial as “baseless … ignorant …hateful”. He recognised that Hamas has genuine support among Palestinians, but excoriated the group's methods: “It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus,” he said. “That's not how moral authority is claimed; that's how it is surrendered.””

Obama referred to America’s “unbreakable bond” with Israel, which he coupled with a bold attack on “baseless, ignorant and hateful” denial of the Nazi Holocaust, a remark obviously aimed at Iran. Israel deserved security and Obama said Palestinians had to 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,” he said.

Obama also said, “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 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 Israel, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed – peace be upon them – joined in prayer."

Response and reaction of the People
The reaction and response to Obama’s speech particularly with regard to Israeli-Palestinian conflict was mixed, both regionally and internationally and people of different levels responded differently to his policy on the Middle East.

Regional elite class. The Palestinian Authority praised the speech as “an important step towards a new American policy”. “President Obama's speech is a good start and an important step towards a new American policy,” Palestinian official Nabil Abu Rdainah said (quoted by Ross Colvin and David Alexander in The Independent, on 4 June, 2009). Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman said: “There is a change between the speech of President Obama and previous speeches made by George Bush. But today's remarks at Cairo University were based on soft diplomacy to brighten the image of the United States.” (The Independent, on 4 June, 2009)

In Lebanon, Hassan Fadlallah, a lawmaker for Lebanon's Hezbollah, said, “The Islamic world does not need moral or political sermons. It needs a fundamental change in American policy,” whereas in Egypt, Mohamed Habib, deputy leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that poses the strongest opposition to Hosni Mubarak's regime, said: “It's a public relations address more than anything else.” In Damascus, the Hamas leader Khaled Meshal told Time magazine: “Undoubtedly Obama speaks a new language. We are looking for more than just mere words … We are keen to contribute to this. But we [believe that cannot happen] merely with words.”

Non-elite group: In this category, I considered those who are not the elite class but the common average people, especially from the younger student generation. Their opinions carry special weight and cannot be ignored. They are the most powerful non-elite group.

Many people in Cairo were pleased at the US Administration’s tougher stance on Israel's settlement building, which Washington has said must stop completely as part of renewed peace efforts. There was loud applause when Obama said emphatically: “The US 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.”

Yasmeen El Khoudairy, a 19-year from Gaza who is studying at the American University of Cairo, said, “I hope he’ll get serious on the Palestine issue.” “He has to stop Binyamin Netanyahu,” he said of the Israeli Prime Minister who refuses to endorse the idea of an independent Palestinian state, and backs continued “natural growth” of the half-million settler population in the territories that Israel conquered in 1967. Mohammed Ghaneim, 19, a student, was much less impressed. “This is not going to change anything,” he said. “It was all words.” (As reported by to Donald Macintyre in The Independent on 5 June 2009)

But this was not the majority view in the Gaza City’s al Waha café. Those who were from the elder generation have different views: “For me it was a very important speech,” said Munir Dweik, 47, a taxi driver. “I hope this will lead the world to become serious about reconciliation in every place, including between Israelis and Palestinians.” Adeeb Zarouk, 47, a satellite dish repairman, said the President was trying, post-Bush, “to improve the image of America in the Arab world, in American interests”. But he was encouraged overall by the passages on the Israel Palestinian conflict, saying: “It is a good start. The question is whether the Zionists in America will allow him to move on this or not.” Indeed, Mr Zarouk was sufficiently impressed to worry aloud “that someone might attempt to kill him like they killed Kennedy”. (Donald Macintyre in The Independent on 5 June 2009).

Intelligentsia: The third group is intelligentsia; here I include journalists, researchers and analysts from the region. This intelligentsia group has a strong voice of wisdom to be reckoned with.

Abdel Bari Atwan, Editor-in-Chief of Al-Quds wrote in The Independent on 5 June 2009 under the caption: ‘Fine words, but the real test is to come’ that “But for all his fine – very fine – words, Obama offered nothing new in terms of the reality on the ground. There was no pledge to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and no apology, let alone compensation, to the people of Iraq. If Obama genuinely seeks reconciliation, he cannot stop short of such an apology. While I, and all Palestinians, rejoice in his condemnation of the Israeli settlement programme, the only problem remains – how to implement their dismantling. Obama declared that the two-state solution was the only solution, but even George Bush said this. The enduring problem is how to achieve it.”

“If he wants to bridge the gap he must speak positively about Islam," Emad Gad, of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said. He noted that Mr Obama had already appeared on Arabic-language news channels talking about how his father and relatives in Kenya were Muslims, in an attempt to establish a bond with the man on the street. (The Times, 4 June 2009).

“It was basically a very conciliatory speech,” said Hisham Kassem, one of Egypt's leading commentators. “Obama was saying 'I'm not
George Bush’. But there was very little policy and very little you could hold him accountable to.”

But in Saudi Arabia, as elsewhere in the region, enthusiasm was tempered by caution. “We know that no single speech can eradicate the mistrust or dismantle the hostility inherited from the Bush and Cheney era,” said Mr Awaji, referring to the former US administration. In Cairo, Badawi al-Sawi, an Egyptian language teacher, summarised the region's expectations after the speech. “These were good words but the eloquence of action is more powerful than the eloquence of words,” he said. (Financial Times, 5 June 2009)

A similar tone was heard in Pakistan. “He hit all the right notes,” said Maleeha Lodhi, former Pakistani ambassador to the US and UK. “But the test will come in the conduct of US policy, not the offer of promises.” (reported in Financial Times)

World Media
David Usborne, US editor of The Independent quoted : “If talking is going to resolve all the problems in the world, Obama got a good bit of that out of the way today,” wrote the New York Post's reporter in Cairo. “He talked and talked and talked and talked. And then kept talking.” (The Independent, 5 June 2009)

“It is true, as a few less benevolent critics noted yesterday, that words are not the same thing as deeds. But words set a tone, and Mr Obama's every nuance was calculated to say that today's White House, politically and philosophically, is as far from George Bush's as it is possible to be,” wrote The Independent editorially and observed, “A time will come when Mr Obama – and the US public on his behalf – will, rightly, expect his outstretched hand to be reciprocated. Foreign leaders will not be able to bask indefinitely in the US President's reflected goodwill.”

“The President did not unveil a new policy programme or
Middle East peace plan. Instead, it will be the tone – even the vocabulary – he used that will have the greatest impact,” wrote Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian and observed, “Whether this sensitive, supple and sophisticated speech will be remembered will depend on whether the rhetoric of respect is matched by a change in action. And that, as Obama admitted, is more than the work of one day.”

Simon Tisdall quoted in The Guardian
Frida Ghitis who said in World Politics Review: “Unfortunately Obama is backing away from the bold steps required to achieve strategic, Nixon-to-China-type rapprochement with Tehran.” What Obama had yet to demonstrate, they said, was the necessary “strategic vision, political ruthlessness and personal determination” to achieve a breakthrough.

The Guardian editorially Observed, “In all, this was a brave speech by a man who is undoubtedly sincere about his aims. Whether it turns out to be a groundbreaking speech depends on whether he can turn noble words into bold action.” (5 June 2009)

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