Obama’s Speech: the Israeli Perspective

Posted: June 5th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The people behind the excellent Foreign Policy Watch blog invited me to write for them during this summer. I will cross-post most of the stuff here. Here are some thoughts I wrote for FPW yesterday, following Barak Obama’s speech in Cairo.

President Obama touched a variety of subjects on his long-awaited speech to the Arab world today, starting from cultural differences, through religion and finally geopolitics. He mentioned countries and events all across the region, and made many historical and political analogies which could be analyzed and debated. I am not an expert on the Arab world, so I will focus on the two major issues that concerned the Israelis listening to the speech – and they were listening, believe me – which are Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

TO AN ISRAELI EAR, what was interesting in Obama’s speech was that on the surface, the American president didn’t really say anything new. He didn’t need to – the location, as well as the events leading to the speech, made all the difference.

Before we get to hardcore politics, what was most striking and impressive, was the effort Obama took in explaining the special relationship between the US and Israel, and especially his clear words against Holocaust denial, which is becoming somewhat of a phenomenon in several Arab countries. Some people didn’t like the fact that Obama went straight from there to the Palestinian tragedy, but most Israelis I talked to were incredibly impressed by the president’s insistence to speak so firmly on the matter in this particular speech, and in that particular place.

As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama had two important points: (a) that Israel must stop build in the settlements, and (b), that the only acceptable solution was the two-state one. These are things that even George W. Bush said. But it was clear to anyone listening, that Obama couldn’t be further away than were Bush stood on these issues.

The previous administration demanded that Israel not build in the West Bank, but its actual policy was different: it drew some red lines that Israel was never supposed to cross, and turned a blind eye to all the rest. For example, Israel couldn’t fulfill its ambitious plans in East Jerusalem, but it didn’t prevent some 95,ooo new settlers from moving into the West Bank in Bush days, under the pretext of “natural growth”.

Obama made it clear that there will be no more construction. Not in Jerusalem, not “natural growth,” nothing. This led to an open conflict between Jerusalem and the White House, which played into the hand of the president and showed some poor political maneuvering on behalf of the Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu. Instead of offering his own peace plan – even if it was to be a very limited one – Netanyahu openly objected to the demands from Washington, and thus portrayed himself and his new government as the region’s Nay Sayers. The fact of the matter is that it wouldn’t have made any difference if Netanyahu agreed to the two-states solution, as Obama requested in their meeting, because nothing will happen as long as the Palestinians don’t sort their Hamas-PLO conflict. But Netanyahu came to Washington unprepared, and ended up backing himself into a tight corner. The lesson is one my father told me a long time ago: always say “yes” and do what you want, instead of saying “no” and ending up doing what you’re told.

Meanwhile the Palestinian Authority cracked down on Hamas in several well-publicized operations, which played well in the international media. All this helped Obama arrive in Cairo after he already restored much of America’s credit in the region as an honest broker between Israel and the Arab world – something even Bill Clinton sometimes found hard to do.

There were two details were Obama did depart from the Bush statements regarding the Palestinian issue: He made it clear that any arrangement will come within the framework of a regional one, as suggested in the 2002 Arab league initiative – which Israel never bothered to answer, nor was requested to by the US – and he opened the door for incorporating Hamas into the process, if it stops all violent actions. These could turn out to be the two major steps that will allow for a re-ignition of the peace process, though it is much too early to know for sure.

AND FINALLY, WE GET TO IRAN. Here, again, everything sounded familiar – the President said that a nuclear Iran is a threat to the whole region – but the Devil is in the details (that is, if you are Benjamin Netanyahu): Obama said that countries (Iran included, naturally) should enjoy the right to use nuclear power for civilian purposes – a statement that opens the door for an agreement in which Iran will be allowed to keep the technology and the material, but not the bomb itself – what is often referred to as “a nuclear threshold state”. Obama also reaffirmed his goal of a nuclear-free world, which is something to which Israelis don’t object, but try to avoid talking about, since it will force them to reveal their full nuclear capacity. But this is not an issue which is really on the table right now.

The next major crossroad with Iran is the presidential elections, due later this month. Reports say moderate candidate Hossein Mousavi is gaining some ground, and though even if elected he won’t stop the Iranian nuclear program, the US will probably find it easier to cut a deal with him than with Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad.

To sum it all up, the speech didn’t clear all the Israeli anxieties and fears over the policies of the new president, and it will certainly won’t make life easier for the Israeli government (some reports in Jerusalem say the WH demands an answer from Netanyahu on the issue of the settlements and even the Arab league offer by next month). The Palestinians are a bit happier, but they had their share of disappointments, so they will need more than words to get them fully committed to the process. Altogether, I believe it was an important step on the long way to stabilize the region. They say the Middle East is a heaven for the pessimistics – but June 4th was a bad day for them.

5 Comments on “Obama’s Speech: the Israeli Perspective”

  1. 1 Paul said at 6:49 am on June 5th, 2009:

    And how can this be? For Obama is the Kwisatz Haderach!

  2. 2 noam said at 7:33 am on June 5th, 2009:


  3. 3 rfjk said at 4:32 am on June 6th, 2009:

    “….They say the Middle East is a heaven for the pessimistics – but June 4th was a bad day for them….”

    I’ll say. I’ve been surfing the blogs absorbing the angst and denial and loving it. Denial of course is the worst because it blinds the denier to comprehending and acting effectively against his/her fears.

  4. 4 Dimi Reider said at 12:48 am on June 7th, 2009:

    I have to note another important issue about the speech (at least to my ear): Obama not only mentioned the Palestinian refugees, but said their “dislocation” was brought about by Israel’s founding – not “the war” or “the invading Arab armies”.

  5. 5 noam said at 2:02 am on June 7th, 2009:

    I agree Dimi. He might have hinted there how the problem will be solved as well.