Obama's Momentous Speech in Cairo: An Israeli Perspective

A political controversy—real and painful—has arisen in Israel in recent days with regard to the American position on two crucial questions: the two-state solution and construction in the settlements (to be analyzed below). The unnecessary ferocity of the debate raises the risk, however, that we might overlook other profound aspects of President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, which, at least from my perspective as a proponent of the “special relationship,” are in many ways far more important than the differences.

True, there were problematic passages:
  • The language on Iran was much too mild and well-mannered to convey Obama’s anger (which later, much more powerfully, he did direct at Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during the visit to Buchenwald and facing the horrors of the Holocaust that the latter is so intent on denying).
  • It is one thing to call into question the wisdom of continued settlement activity; it is another to use language that can be read as questioning the legitimacy of Jews living in their own homeland. The description of the history of the conflict was deficient—particularly when it came to the Palestinians’ leaders own rejection of past opportunities for statehood, or to the fate of Jewish refugees from the Arab world. On the other hand, perhaps a more overt assertion of such aspects would have marked the president’s position as too identified with the Zionist reading of history (well-documented and morally grounded as the latter may be), and thus would have enabled Obama’s huge audience, hundreds of millions who sat spellbound, to close their mind again. As constructed, the speech lured them away from such traditional resistance to the American message.
  • The same may be said about the overly effusive praise heaped in the first part of the speech on the central contribution of Muslims to America (while there is no denying the very real achievements of several highly talented individuals) and about the estimate the president used of how many Muslim citizens now live in America. AJC has shown decisively, as have others in recent years, that the 6 million to 7 million figure often provided by Muslim organizations is more than twice as high as the real numbers. Once again, however, accuracy may have been set aside, to some extent, to generate a sense of partnership and common purpose with the Muslim world, writ large.

Such partnership was indeed on offer, particularly in the third, very important but less quoted part of the speech, which left behind the current battlefields—Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and the Palestinians, Iran—and focused on the deepest and most demanding dynamics of change: the rights of women; the treatment of minorities; the rule of law; social and economic development; and, yes, that other D-word, democracy. There was much there, ironically enough, that was not much different from what had been the neo-con gospel, but, once again, the “who, where, when (and how)” of things proved to matter more than the “what.” The previous Administration came to be perceived, perhaps unjustly, as “crusading” in the Muslim world—although its position on Islam and modernity had been as hopeful as that which Obama now put forward, and its rejection of Samuel P. Huntington’s thesis of the “clash of civilizations” was every bit as vehement. Now the argument was being made in “soft power” language and with a call to work together, and so may well have had greater resonance (perhaps it already has, in Lebanon and Iran) than when it was backed by hard military power. It is of tremendous benefit for Israel that this should come to be the case.

As for the more pressing sources of conflict, the message on Iran was muted yet clear (and reflected a decision already made two months ago, when Obama spoke in Prague about the horror that might ensue if the dam of nonproliferation were to burst). A world in which Iran would be allowed to have the bomb would become a very dangerous place—not just for Israel, whom he did not even mention as a factor in this equation, but for all mankind. Reason enough to act decisively, should the effort of engagement fail.

On the Palestinian question, there was much that a discerning Israeli ear could hear (or did not hear, because it was significantly missing from the speech) that was in line with Israeli needs and expectations:
  1. The assertion, to an audience that may well resent this message, that the American bond with Israel is unbreakable (period—no ifs, ands, or buts) is of great and abiding importance, and was explained, although in passing, as being rooted not only in recent tragic history, but also in much more that the two nations have in common.
  2. Equally powerful—in a country often fed, even by governmental media, on a foul diet of denial—was the disquisition on the memory of the Holocaust and its validation of the “Jewish yearning for a homeland” (not an issue on which students in Cairo get many lessons).
  3. The depiction of the acts of terror—without using the term itself, which has become almost trite, but describing these acts in all their horror: shelling children in their beds; bombing old women on a bus—was once again important, aimed as it was at young people, many of whom were taught to admire or even emulate the “shahid’s sacrifice.”
  4. At a more political level, the three conditions that the Quartet posed to Hamas three-and-a-half years ago seemed as fresh in Obama’s speech as they were when they were minted (despite the cynics’ expectation that they would slowly wilt away or be diluted): Recognize Israel’s right to exist; recognize existing agreements between Israel and the PA; and desist from violence.
  5. On the substance of future negotiations, Obama resisted the advice of some—such as Roger Cohen—to use the date (June 4) to swing behind the Arab and European interpretation of UNSCR 242 and call for full Israeli withdrawal based on the “fourth of June 1967 lines.” Israelis who feared an imposed American solution could relax (for a while, at least). On Jerusalem, the president was poetic, even prophetic, but not precise. On the borders, he offered no advice beyond the call to end the occupation.
  6. Moreover, on the process, he quite significantly dropped any reference to Annapolis. The previous Israeli government was politically willing to leap to the permanent status talks (Stage III of the Road Map). The present Israel government is not. Thus, the mention of the Road Map but the omission of Annapolis can be read as a response to current Israeli concerns.
  7. Another glaring omission was the absence of any specific reference to Syria (as against the extensive discussion of Palestinian concerns), clearly reflecting the disappointing outcome, so far, of the exploratory diplomatic missions to Damascus.
  8. Of great importance was the call on Arab states to say—and do—in public what they often concede in private: namely, recognize that Israel is a fact, and for some of them at least, in some ways, even an ally with whom they should deal directly.
  9. Finally, when speaking of his own role, Obama spoke not only about a profound commitment to change the Palestinians’ “intolerable” conditions, but also, very significantly, about the need for patience: a useful warning against the rush to judgment or toward the imposition of solutions, which the Israeli government can appreciate (but must be careful not to abuse).
True, side by side with these positives were the points of difference: the repeated calls for the two-state solution (the crowd cheered, forgetting for a moment that this involves also Israel’s right to exist in peace…) and the settlements. There are tactical reasons why Binyamin Netanyahu, while letting others in his cabinet speak about the Road Map (“to a viable Palestinian state,” by its full name), remains reluctant to go all the way; but may use his coming speech next week to narrow the gap. As for the settlements, it should be said—coherently and bravely—that the Administration’s sense of past frustration is not entirely unfounded. And yet by strong-arming the prime minister, for various reasons of their own, they do more harm than good. Given the fearful and perhaps deadly choices Israel may one day need to make (facing a dangerously violent minority), it is unwise to take positions that lump together hundreds of thousands of Jews living beyond the Green Line. The one effective course of action would be to isolate the small radical segment rather than give them common ground with the larger mass of settlers.

Having said all this, it should also be noted that some degree of disagreement between free nations is not unhealthy. Israelis, Americans, and Arabs would all benefit by a reminder that our wills and wishes are not always identical, and that Israel, while not foolishly defiant, is not blindly compliant either. Some degree of push and pull is not a bad idea at the onset of long and complex negotiations, during which many other points of contention are sure to arise. The Palestinians, in any case, would be making a grave mistake if they just sit back and enjoy the show. Those in Washington or in the media who quote selectively from Jim Baker’s legacy forget that in his seminal speech in March 1989 (written by Dennis Ross), he also said, plain and simple, “no one is going to deliver Israel” (as a gift package to Arab recipients). Nor will Obama.
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