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In what some call �the most important speech since his taking office,�
President Obama addressed the so-called Muslim world from Cairo on
Thursday. His remarked were received with mixed feelings all over the
region, and especially in Israel/Palestine. Lia Tarachansky examines
how commentators from the far Israeli right to the far left, from Hamas to
the Palestinian Authority filled the media world with interpretations and

Story Transcript

Middle East Reacts to Obama
Producer: Lia Tarachansky

LIA TARACHANSKY: On Thursday, June 4, US President Barack Obama spoke in Cairo, addressing the so-called Muslim world. The speech was esteemed by some in the region as his most important since taking office, and received heavy publicity, both in anticipation and in reaction afterwards.

BARACK OBAMA: The second major source of tension that we need to discuss is the situation between Israelis, Palestinians, and the Arab world. America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties and the recognition that the aspirations for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied. Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented holocaust. On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people�Muslims and Christians�have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations, large and small, that come with occupation.

TARACHANSKY: Commenting on Obama addressing both the Holocaust and the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians, known as the Nakba, Gideon Levy writes that “Only the Israeli analysts tried to diminish the speech’s importance … [or] to spread fear,” by noting Obama mentioned the Holocaust and the Nakba in the same breath. “All these were redundant and unnecessary,” he says. “Obama emerged Thursday as a true friend of Israel.” (“Obama emerged in Cairo as a true friend of Israel,” Haaretz, June 5, 2009) Saed Bannoura, a correspondent with the West Bank-based International Middle East Media Center (IMEMC), illustrated that Obama used the word “occupation” when referring to Israel’s control over the West Bank, an issue that was widely ignored by the former US presidents.

OBAMA: For decades, then, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It’s easy to point fingers, for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought about by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history, from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth. The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

TARACHANSKY: Many in the region welcomed his regards, including three Palestinian unions: “They said that Obama�s statements on his support to the Palestinian right of statehood, and the statement about ‘the Palestinians and Israelis live in peace and security’ are very encouraging and indicate [that] he intends to pursue this goal.” (“Three Palestinian Unions welcome Obama�s speech,”, June 5, 2009) Haaretz commentator Akiva Eldar went as far as to state that “If Barack Obama fulfills even some of the promises he made during his important address in Cairo Thursday … will be remembered in world history as the last day of the 9/11 era.” He went on to expand that “… the era of formal imbalance in the trilateral relationship between the US, Israel and the Arab world gave way to an equilateral triangle.” (“Obama’s Cairo speech signals end of the 9/11 era,” Haaretz, June 5, 2009) But many criticized the speech, saying it did not outline much policy change. Al Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds writes, “The notion of ‘turning the page’ comes easily to many Americans, but is odd and unsettling to cultures still living with the results of historic wrongs.” (“US reaction split on Obama speech,”, June 5, 2009)

OBAMA: Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel’s right to exist. At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

TARACHANSKY: Many on the Israeli hard-right were disappointed as well. Though Obama did not comment on the fate of existing settlements, he nonetheless invoked impassioned responses from the settler community. “The Israeli government is not an American surplus,” said Daniel Hershkowitz through Haaretz (Barak Ravid, “Israel: We hope Obama speech heralds new era in Mideast,” June 5, 2009). Hershkowitz is the chairman of the far-right party HaBayit HaYehudi [The Jewish Home] and minister of science and technology. During a tour of the contentious West Bank city of Hebron, where settler violence is particularly high, he said: “Our relations are based on friendship, not domination, and we’ve got to draw a line when it comes to natural growth in the settlements.” On Friday, a day after his speech, IMEMC reported [that] 20-year-old Husam Al Za’tary, a bakery worker in Jerusalem, was attacked by settlers while waiting at a bus stop. The Jerusalem Post also reported that settlers continue to erect an illegal outpost in the West Bank on Friday morning: “At the outpost, named Oz Yehonatan, the settlers built a wooden structure they mockingly called the ‘Obama Hut,’ saying it was a sign of appreciation for the US president for his actions that had led to a dramatic rise in the number of outposts.” (“Settlers build ‘Oz Yehonatan’ outpost,” The Jerusalem Post, June 5, 2009) The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah took this point further. He asks, “… did Obama really imagine that such words would impress an Arab public that watched in horror as Israel slaughtered 1,400 people in Gaza last winter, including hundreds of sleeping, fleeing or terrified children, with American-supplied weapons?” (“Obama in Cairo: A Bush in sheep’s clothing?”, June 5, 2009) He goes on to identify that “Some people are prepared to give Obama a pass for all this because he is at last talking tough on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. . . . These carefully chosen words focus only on continued construction, not on the existence of the settlements themselves; they are entirely compatible with the peace process industry consensus that existing settlements will remain where they are for ever.” One of the most prominent Palestinian commentators, Abd al-Bari Atwan, writes in the Arabic language daily Al-Quds about the lack of concreteness in Obama’s speech: “Obama spoke of democracy, but didn’t say how he will spread it. He focused on the importance of stopping the Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories without offering the mechanism for doing so, and he stressed the need for the establishment of a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel without explaining how he plans to get to that goal.” But many acknowledge the speech carefully omitted certain points. One of Israel’s most prominent commentators, Gideon Levy, writes: “Our right-wingers were disappointed that he did not approve at least of [historic West Bank settlement cluster] Gush Etzion, and the peace lovers were disappointed that he did not offer a timetable. But a speech is just that, and the time for carrying things out is still to come.” (“Obama emerged in Cairo as a true friend of Israel,” Haaretz, June 5, 2009) Herb Keinon of The Jerusalem Post added that “The biggest omission, from Israel’s point of view, is not mentioning the Jewish historic and religious right to be in this part of the world.” (“Analysis: Cairo scorecard: The good, the bad & the omitted,” June 5, 2009) But Akiva Eldar of of Haaretz reported that “It is hard to believe that Obama simply forgot to mention the words “Jewish state”. . . . He presumes that the president believes that the nature of the state of Israel is something only the state of Israel can decide.” (“Obama’s Cairo speech signals end of the 9/11 era,” June 5, 2009) Urging the end of Palestinian armed resistance, David Horowitz noted that Obama did not include a parallel criticism of Israel’s military response to such killings. Even more vague were Obama’s comments on Jerusalem, which Herb Keinon, a Jerusalem Post commentator, assured his readers were nothing to worry about. He writes: “Obama’s comments on Jerusalem are not a blueprint for policy, but rather an overall aspiration. It shouldn’t be seen as a clarion call to wrest Jerusalem out of Israeli control, because the issue of control, of sovereignty, was not mentioned.” (“Analysis: Cairo scorecard: The good, the bad & the omitted,” The Jerusalem Post, June 5, 2009) Obama announced he intends to send his Middle East special envoy, George Mitchell, back to the region next week. Mitchell will have to carry on Obama’s words into actions, as the Israeli government’s statement on Obama’s speech did not illustrate opposition or support. Palestinian Authority’s presidency spokesperson Abu Rudeineh said that the Palestinians are willing to resume the peace process on the basis of the Arab peace initiative, a document Obama mentioned in his speech. Abu Rudeineh also emphasized that this peace should be based on justice and equality. But the Hamas government in Gaza said that the speech was filled with soft diplomacy and compliments, and that it lacked real policies that could achieve change.

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