Obama’s Speech: Not Cairo 2009

Barack Obama’s much-anticipated speech has now come and gone, and those of us who had very low expectations for it were not disappointed.

There was nothing new, and much that was tired, familiar and demonstrably ineffective regarding Israel and the Palestinians, and a decidedly tepid response to the Arab Spring.

Obama presented a distressingly familiar, neo-liberal plan for economic assistance for Egypt and Tunisia, complete with a request for an International Monetary Fund plan, which generally includes strict austerity measures, for strengthening the local economies. Debt forgiveness and loan guarantees for Egypt, totaling $2 billion, as well as private sector stimulation initiatives were promised, but it seems likely that the agenda here is to re-establish American influence through economic controls.

Still, one shouldn’t entirely dismiss these measures—Tunisia and especially Egypt do indeed need economic help, and the measures announced will help, both in terms of debt reduction and in terms of stimulating the private sector.

But what was most important regarding the Arab Spring was what was not said.

While Obama criticized Bahrain and Yemen for their violent responses to protests, no action will be taken. And there was no mention at all of Saudi Arabia, an extremely repressive government that has squashed any hint of protest in its own country and helped Bahrain in their crackdown as well.

Cynically, we all know why, but once again this will play in the Arab world as America acting only for its own interests and without principle, and therefore a state that cannot be trusted. That will be felt in Egypt just as much as in Syria.

On Israel-Palestine

There were some positive nuggets in Obama’s speech. The fact that he specifically noted that Palestinian borders must be with “Israel, Jordan and Egypt” meant two things: that he does not envision a Palestinian state without Gaza (the West Bank does not border Egypt) and, much more importantly, that he does not accept Israeli claims to keeping the Jordan Valley.

That’s important, because that is something that Netanyahu has been building up rhetorically.

Netanyahu will also no doubt notice, unhappily, that Obama specifically cited the 1967 border as the starting point, with mutually agreed swaps. He has already stated that he wanted to go back to the George W. Bush specific promise of not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines.

But Bibi will be much more pleased with Obama’s statement that security and borders must be dealt with first, while Jerusalem and refugees will be dealt with later. That is, of course, the Oslo recipe and it will allow protracted negotiations to potentially continue, if the Palestinians come back to the table under these circumstances. It’s unlikely they will, but if they don’t, it will strengthen Israel’s position that the Palestinians are the ones obstructing progress.

Obama made very clear his absolute opposition to the Palestinian effort to secure a UN vote in September on its statehood.

He also left some wiggle room on dealing with a Palestinian unity government, though he essentially stuck with the demand of Hamas meeting the Quartet conditions: “In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel – how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist. In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.”

On the whole, the Israeli far right will find some things to object to, but the speech should play fairly well in Israel. Bibi will not have anything here to fight with Obama about tomorrow. Not so among the Palestinians.

Putting off Jerusalem and refugees displays a disregard for the current mood among the Palestinians. Both Jerusalem and refugees have become even more central to the Palestinian public in the last two years, and this has been expressed in the recent Palestinian actions. Obama seems to have either missed this point or chosen to ignore it.

Obviously, too, the UN vote issue is one that also will make Palestinians feel that the US does not share any of their concerns. The 1967 borders statement and the message about the Jordan Valley will be viewed positively, but they won’t be seen to mean much—Palestinians will rightly see these two points as things that should be axiomatic.

Given the developments in recent months – the Arab Spring, the Palestine Papers and the Nakba Day violence – the PA, with or without Hamas, is not in a position to accept a state with Jerusalem still in limbo, especially since Israel will obviously continue to expand its settlements there.

So, nothing in this speech does anything to get Palestinians back to the table. This was not one of Obama’s goals; he is probably aware that there is nothing he can do to bring the PA back to talks without causing a serious problem with Netanyahu and his supporters here, something he is not going to do with next year’s election looming.

On the whole, the speech accomplished what it set out to do: communicate domestically some guiding principles on both the changing political landscape of the Middle East and on Israel-Palestine and present the President positively to the reactionary “pro-Israel” crowd. Media response thus far suggests he did that and it was well-received, even though most reactions did note that there was a lot more flourish than substance to his speech.

But in the region, this is not going to play nearly as well, especially as time goes on and the practical meaning of Obama’s words becomes clearer. He offered nothing of substance to the Palestinians. There was no sense of remorse for decades of American support for Arab dictatorships, some of which is ongoing.

The ideas for how to address the Arab Spring are thin. $1 billion is barely a dent in Egypt’s $30 billion debt, and the rest will either work or not, but it will take a long time to even begin implementing them. There is also a judgmental tone, with Obama tying economic action to political ones that will both cause concern among Arabs and reinforce the sense that the US treats the region with a colonialist attitude.

The points about Israel-Palestine are minor at best.

For a speech with this much buildup, there is amazingly little substance. The subtext may well be Obama admitting that American influence in the region is declining sharply.

PS: One mistake Obama made, surely just a minor research mistake, was to identify a quote – “I gradually realized that the only hope for progress was to recognize the face of the conflict,” – with an Israeli father. In fact, it was an Israeli mother, Robi Damelin. Not a big deal, but it was a missed opportunity to bring a little attention to a female peacemaker in this big mess. It would have been nice if he could have done that.

11 thoughts on “Obama’s Speech: Not Cairo 2009

  1. well since it’s not women who start the wars they already have enough credit not the credit them on peacemaking efforts.

  2. The overwrought response to the line in the speech about 1967 borders seems a bit contrived.

    Obviously they have to use ’67 borders as a parameter- the bit about land swaps means that Israel gets to keep large settlement blocks. If they don’t use 1967 borders then the solution will be a series of non-contiguous bantustans with limited sovereignty and few natural resources- that won’t bring peace to the region it will just inflame hatred.

    Bibi’s response once again shows that he has no interest in a two state solution and it’s high time he be called on it.

  3. “In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel – how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist. In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.”

    Whenever Israel is asked (in so many words) why it hasn’t managed to recognize Palestine’s right to exist, it shouts “security!” Palestinians certainly could echo that concern.

    “Bibi will not have anything here to fight with Obama about tomorrow.”

    It seems he’s already fighting. The “Auschwitz borders” thing. But since both Washington and Tel Aviv operate outside the realm of public opinion, it won’t matter to either Obama or Bibi whether or not the public is still buying that cheap invocation to the Holocaust.

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