Friday, 5 June 2009

Obama's Cairo evasions

Barack Obama's Cairo speech has been hailed as a landmark event by much of the Western media, and well received in substantial parts of the Middle East and Muslim world. It promised a new engagement of Islam, Islamic countries, notably Iran, and made specific references to the "intolerable" situation of the Palestinian people, the "occupation", their "humiliation" and the need for an end to settlement construction.

Many a progressive pundit will have taken more than a grain of hope from the address, and understandably so when one reads back the specificity of Obama's words in recognising Palestinian suffering and in support of Palestinian statehood. The giddy thought of Obama's predecessor making such a speech adds to the proclaimed sense of "new beginning".

But what may be new in presidential words, perhaps even conviction, remains deeply compromised by presidential inaction. It's early days, many will remind; this is an opening salvo against Israel, others might believe. Perhaps. But none of this quite excuses an incoming administration already well-versed on the realities and immediacy of the task in hand. One sure thing we can say about Obama is that he does understand what has to be done to reach a nominal peace deal. The problem lies not just in the rhetorical stating of that agenda, but in the administration's unwillingness to effect a deal utterly antithetical to America's Israeli lobby and wider conservative network.

That requires much stiffer words and statements of intent. And Obama offered here no indication of such.

Let's deal, firstly, with some of the more obvious things that Obama didn't say.

He didn't say:
Israel (as well as Hamas) must also renounce violence.

He didn't say:
All settlements must be dismantled, including those in East Jerusalem.

He didn't say:
The Palestinian people have an inviolable right of return.

He didn't say:
Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza and those responsible must be brought to international justice.

Obama's conspicuous omissions on dividing Jerusalem and dismantling the East Jerusalem settlements is a particular example of calculated evasion.

Jonathan Cook has just written a timely piece on how Western politicians and an Israel-based Western media serve to blur the lines between the illegal settlements of West Bank and East Jerusalem. The former has around 300,000 settlers, the latter 200,000. Yet, East Jerusalem settlement is presented - where it's covered at all - as somehow different, 'relatively legitimate', part of the 'more complex' on-the-ground 'reality' of Israeli 'habitation'. As Cook notes:
"Most of the Israeli media can be depended on to toe the government line on East Jerusalem. But why are many foreign journalists doing the same? Some doubtless are ignorant, others lazy. But agency reporters and their editors, who are well versed in the intricacies of the conflict, are neither. Invariably, however, those making the final editorial decisions — as opposed to their Palestinian stringers who supply raw copy — are too close to Israel to remain entirely dispassionate.

Some are Israeli citizens, or married to one. But, even among those who are not, the overwhelming majority of senior editorial staff live inside Israel, and soak up the Israeli coverage, either in Hebrew or English. They also eat in Israeli restaurants and go to Israeli parties, making them susceptible to adopting the consensual Israeli perspective.

All too easily, agency journalists end up mirroring — and adding a veneer of legitimacy to — Israel’s opinion about East Jerusalem. Senior agency staff have admitted to this blind spot in their coverage. “We think of the East Jerusalem settlers as a separate category,” said one, who requested anonymity. Why? “Because that’s Israel’s view of them.” Questioned further, he agreed that they should probably be included in the figures for settlers. “It’s something we’re discussing,” he added."

This kind of "separate category", or "fact on the ground" as Zionists prefer, helps reinforce the notion that while settlement dismantling may be necessary, it's probably not really expected to happen unless Israel decides that it can happen. Coupled with the 'it's still early days' line from Obama's aides, Washington's 'peace' narrative remains one of 'suggested encouragement' to Netanyahu rather than forceful insistence.

Indeed, for Chomsky, it's a grim picture, with Obama offering nothing that hasn't already been said, even by Bush 1. He also makes the most obvious point on the settlement issue, ignored by Obama and the media alike:
"Overlooked in the debate over settlements is that even if Israel were to accept Phase I of the Road Map, that would leave in place the entire settlement project that has already been developed...
In post-speech exchanges with reporters from Muslim countries and Israel, Obama reiterated the problem of settlements, but failed again to make the crucial demands:
In response to a question on the steps the U.S. will take regarding the settlements, Obama said: "It's only been five months for me, Netanyahu has only been in office for two months, we've been waiting 60 years. So maybe we should try out a few more months before everybody starts looking at doomsday scenarios. This is difficult and it is going to take time."

"The Israelis have difficult decisions to make," he continued. "As I said in my speech, these settlements are an impediment to peace. That's not to deny the fact that there are people who are living in these settlements, there is a momentum to some of these settlements, and turning the back on those settlements involves very tough choices. That's why I said that America cannot do this for the parties."
This last statement bears close examination - much closer than the actual speech. In effect, it's an exercise in off-setting Obama's stated 'obligation' to the Palestinians. It's saying Israel has "difficult decisions to make", which is palpably true. But the US also has equally, if not more, difficult decisions to make. It has to decide whether it is prepared to take the necessary steps to enact a just peace agreement, which, when all the artifice is stripped away, means withdrawing support for Israel until it agrees to a meaningful solution. Instead, Obama's exit card is that "America cannot do this for the parties." Which, again, translated from diplomatic idiom, means a secondary 'facilitating' role rather than a primary enforcing one.

Words are important. But they mean nothing when not accompanied by decisive action. In this case, it involves withdrawing, in substantive part, financial, political and 'emotional' support from Israel until it adheres to a just peace. The likelihood of any such denial and sanction remains some considerable way off.

And, of course, settlements are only one part of any peace agenda. If Obama is serious about ending the Palestinians' "intolerable" situation, he should, even at this 'early' stage, be laying out a much more specific and demanding stall on all the substantive issues.

The Palestinian support movement can take a certain encouragement from this speech. Not in the belief of immediate or promised action from the US. But in the fact that these key words - "intolerable", "occupation" and the Palestinians' "legitimate aspration...for a state of their own" are all now on this administration's verbal record. Which gives the campaign that further bit of international weight to push for intensified collective action - namely, boycott, divestment and sanctions - against Israel.

Beyond that, Ali Abunimah rightly sees little room for optimism in Obama's words:
"He may have more determination than his predecessor but he remains committed to an unworkable two-state "vision" aimed not at restoring Palestinian rights, but preserving Israel as an enclave of Israeli Jewish privilege. It is a dead end."

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