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Thursday, June 11, 2009

President Obama's Cairo speech

Here's the link to Obama's Cairo speech:
http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-at-Cairo-University-6-04-09/

I thought he did a great job in trying to mend fences that have been left neglected and rotting for 8 years. He clarified a lot of common sense things that Bush obfuscated. I know this wasn't the place to make major policy announcements, but I think that's what I wanted to hear, so I was a bit disappointed. I think the folks are right who say that if he doesn't actually do something soon, the words will be just meaningless words. Overall, the speech was going in the right direction.

I did appreciate how he said that just as Israel has a right to exist, so does Palestine. Settlements were again spoken about, which is important, but Israel will continue to ignore it if we don't do something- like threaten to cut "aid" to them, for instance.

One thing that disturbed me was that he said our bond with Israel was unbreakable. I don't think our bond with any country should be without conditions or unbreakable. That should make no sense to anyone concerned about our security.

Another biggie was that he kept speaking of Palestinian displacement vs. Israel's having to endure hostility, attacks, old women on buses being blown up, sleeping children being fired on by rockets. "Displacement" is probably the most polite way I have heard it described (esp. if you consider all it encompasses-occupation, crimes, bloodshed- which most won't). On top of this, to contrast it with Palestinians blowing up old women and children is to say that Israel doesn't shoot children on the way to school, blow up families on the beach or in cars, demolish homes, take prisoners for political reasons, the list goes on... It is simply unfair and untrue to imply that Palestinians do this, but Israel does not have as much, if not more, innocent blood on its hands.


To be fair, he did touch on the Palestinian humanitarian situation and called it intolerable. But he fell into the same old American refrain of telling Palestinians they must renounce violence, recognize Israel (As a Jewish state? He didn't say. And didn't Hamas already do this in 2006?), recognize past agreements, without being as straightforward with Israel. This stipulation that Palestinians must renounce violence and disarm, but Israel doesn't, makes no sense. Even if both sides disarmed, where would we be? Palestinian land would still be occupied, they would still be imprisoned without food and water or travel or rights, but Israel would be peachy, so I guess that's all that matters?? Who would accept such conditions as we are expecting Palestinians to accept? The absurdity and inequality goes back to when the Mandate Palestine was formed (and before). Jews owned 6% of the land, but were given 55% under the British Mandate. Everyone always says it's the Arabs' fault for not accepting agreements. Who would? Who in their right mind would not be enraged by a bunch of Westerners suddenly giving away half the land (to new immigrants mostly) already won and promised to them (for helping remove the Ottoman Empire) to finally exercise their independence?

He did call on Israel to "live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society," which is an improvement, I'll give him that, but it is still without the specifics the Palestinians routinely get. This description, along with "dislocation" is rather the whitewashed, cleaner version of actual events. It still gets under my skin that Palestinians are described as "dislocated" (it isn't even said Israel is to blame, but rather something Palestinians suffer without rhyme or reason, like an earthquake), which is rather benign compared to the imagery of Palestinians blowing up old women and sleeping children.

If he'd have stated the specifics of the UN resolutions Israel is ignoring, such as withdraw from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem to pre-1967 borders, tear down the Wall, recognize and allow the Palestinian right of return, evacuate ALL settlements, recognize Jerusalem as an international city, release political prisoners and children, recognize a Palestinian state with control over it's own borders, airspace, and water, THEN I would have called the speech a real turning point.

Here are a few other reactions. The first, I agree with, the other two I think are rather funny given that they focus on one word or sentence, rather than the whole or even a few paragraphs.

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US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation had this, among other things to say about the speech. I thought this point was particularly insightful:

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.

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Fox news focused on the mention of Hamas. Obama was more chastising them rather than promising to treat them as a negotiating partner. As usual, Fox missed the point.

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MSNBC noted the "silence" in response to the one sentence mention of closing the Sunni-Shia divide. IMO, clapping would be inappropriate, as it was talking about the violence as well, so I’d say that the “silence” was more out of respect for the situation rather than a rejection of Obama’s call for unity. And sometimes you need to pause to see where he's going and what he has to say. Clapping after every sentence they agreed with would get tiresome and annoying (for all, I'm sure).

Here's the sentence:
“And if we are being honest, fault lines must be closed among Muslims, as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.”

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