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Phyllis Bennis: Obama presents neo-liberal reforms for Egypt and support for Israel as a Jewish State

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And in Washington on Thursday, President Obama delivered what was billed as a new vision for US foreign policy in the Middle East in light of the Arab uprising or Arab Spring. Here’s a little segment of what President Obama said.


BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: So we face a historic opportunity. We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be. Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region.


JAY: Now joining us in our Washington studio is Phyllis Bennis. She’s a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. Thank you for joining us.


JAY: So what’s your first take on his vision for the new Arab uprising?

BENNIS: I think he failed. I think he failed to articulate the kind of real change in US policy that would match the transformation of the region that we’re seeing. There would have been a need to say–even if he didn’t want to say, we were wrong, we are sorry, he would have had to say, we’re going to do something entirely different than we ever did before. We are going to not only recognize that it’s people who are in the streets who are making history today, the people who are claiming the right to govern themselves, but we’re going to be on their side and we’re going to abandon these dictatorships. What he did say was that we have these principles, and we realize that they won’t always be reflected in every country, but that in the meantime we’re going to just provide some economic support in a couple of the countries where there’s been this kind of change. And in other places it wasn’t at all clear. For example, he did say–and this was perhaps an important thing–he did criticize softly the repression that has gone on in Yemen and Bahrain, both of which are key US allies, Bahrain of course being the home of the Fifth Fleet and Yemen being the center of the constant use of drones in attacks against so-called terrorists. But after going into great detail about the level of repression and the consequences of repression in Libya and in Syria, in the other places he said we should remember these are our friends, but friends must speak honestly, and we must say they must engage in negotiations. That was it. Nothing about consequences.

JAY: Well, his first big message in the first part of his speech is that we need to consider street vendors as more important than elites, except–which first of all recognizes that the Middle East is a class society, which is pretty good, ’cause it rarely gets recognized here. But that being said, he follows it up by saying our short-term interests will trump this vision. But once you say that, when do you ever have the long-term vision? It will always be about the elites and not the street vendors.

BENNIS: It’s always been about the elites. I think the fact that much as they were sort of slow in getting off the dime to say in Tunisia and Egypt, we’re going to have to do something differently here, we’re going to lose, we’re going to be on the losing side, instead they wanted to be on the winning side of history, and they saw that the winning side of history was the side of the street vendors and the side of the people in Tahrir Square. So that was an acknowledgment when he compared the young street vendor in Tunisia whose self-immolation was the spark that began the Arab Spring, when he compared him to Rosa Parks. That was important, because Rosa Parks, certainly for Obama personally, but also as an icon of this country is–she is on a pedestal with no one except perhaps Dr. Martin Luther King in this country with Nelson Mandela globally. So that comparison was important. He was saying this is the legitimacy that we identify with. Now, having said that, as you say, the question of what’s our real policy, then we’re down to the economic stuff, and that had a couple of good things. He said there will be about $1 billion in debt relief for Egypt. Debt relief is important for these heavily indebted societies. But he went on to say that all the rest is about building globalized capitalism. It was about trade liberalization and open markets, free trade, all these things that have failed so badly to bring anything remotely resembling economic justice.

JAY: And to a large extent policies that both in Egypt, Mubarak, and even in Libya with Gaddafi, he essentially embraced. This is what helped cause all the poverty that he’s talking about, empty stomachs.

BENNIS: Exactly. This was the kind of globalization’s consequences brought home in that region, and he’s saying, we’re just going to do more of it. The only exception was the issue of debt relief, and that is very important, much more than direct aid. It’s the only thing that really provides funds for a government to be able to use for social welfare of its citizens.

JAY: So let’s now move to the Israeli-Palestinian question, because when all is said and done, this is actually what everybody was waiting for. What is he going to talk about? So here’s a clip of what he had to say.


OBAMA: Now let me say this. Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table. And particularly, 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? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.


BENNIS: That was significant. It was significant because it was not saying we can’t negotiate with Hamas. That was a danger, that he might have said that, we will not negotiate with [incompr.] government–.

JAY: And Netanyahu has made it very clear they will not. I mean, he’s really taking a different position here.

BENNIS: That’s true. This was a real distinction from the Netanyahu position. This was a position that Hillary Clinton and others at the State Department had said we were going to have to do was to investigate the possibility of negotiating with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. We should recognize, of course, that we’ve been talking for years about negotiating with Israeli governments that include parties that not only don’t recognize a Palestinian state but that have said directly there will never be a Palestinian state, we will not allow a Palestinian state, etc., we don’t recognize the Palestinian people. And no one has ever challenged the idea that Palestinians of course are obligated to negotiate with them anyway. So this is in a sense a shift away from the traditional view that if Hamas is anywhere in the room, we’re out of here. So that was a small shift. It was matched, of course, by another couple of shifts, including the recognition on the part of President Obama that we, of course, as a matter of principle, recognize Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish people, which means it is okay that there be discrimination legalized inside the state of Israel and that Palestine will be the homeland for the Palestinian people, which implies there will be no right of return for Palestinians, except to a state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, even for those Palestinians who were forcibly expelled from their homes in what is now Israel and to which they have the right, under international law, to return now. He’s saying no right of return, Israel as a Jewish state, which means accepting Israeli apartheid inside Israel.

JAY: On the Hamas position, he’s dealing with a reality that has changed. He’s dealing with this new Egypt that he keeps praising. And the new Egypt has said Hamas is a legitimate player here.

BENNIS: And in fact it was the new government of Egypt that brought together Hamas and Fatah and created the unity process that has made possible [incompr.] kinds of diplomacy right now. The problem, of course, is that President Obama has said that the Palestinian diplomatic initiative planned for September is not going to work, that it’s not legitimate, that it won’t be real. He has said that efforts to de-legitimize Israel will fail, despite the fact that Israeli leaders themselves have indicated their unease that the campaigns to de-legitimize Israeli policies–Israeli occupation, Israeli apartheid–are succeeding around the world. Israel is losing its legitimacy, it’s losing in this battle of legitimacy, because it cannot defend these policies any longer. So he was really disagreeing with that notion, saying it’s going to fail, when clearly it’s having a huge impact.

JAY: The issue of Hamas is really going to put this next three, four days–. Netanyahu’s in Washington. Obama has just taken a very contradictory position to the Israeli government on Hamas, who have said there’s absolutely no negotiations with Hamas.

BENNIS: Well, I think we have to be careful. This was not a commitment on the part of President Obama that we will negotiate with this government.

JAY: It opened the door.

BENNIS: It opened the door. Exactly. And Netanyahu will meet with the president tomorrow.

JAY: Let me say it did more than open the door. Netanyahu says Hamas is terrorist. [incompr.] he treats them like they’re al-Qaeda or something.

BENNIS: The US does the same thing. The US has not taken–as far as we know, has not taken Hamas off the so-called anti-terrorism list. It is still illegal for there to be certain kinds of relations with Hamas. None of that has changed. What did change–and as you said, it was in recognition of the Egyptian-led diplomatic process that brought together Hamas and Fatah into what may become a real unified government for those Palestinians inside the occupied territories. It still doesn’t include Palestinians who are exiles and who are the refugees or those living inside Israel. But for those inside the occupied territories, this is the first time in years that there’s been this kind of a potential for a unified government. It was not a commitment by the Obama administration, but it was an open door to say, we’re willing to listen if this government wants to negotiate; we’re willing to hear how they presume to do so.

JAY: Now, if you look at the actual reality of all this, everyone I talk to–Palestinians, Palestinian representatives inside and outside, they all say the two-state solution’s essentially dead anyway. So what does all this really mean?

BENNIS: It’s not at all clear what it means. I think that the possibilities of even the kind of two-state solution that President Obama spoke of, where he spoke of these 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps, which means, you know, the Israelis get to demand, the Palestinians get to veto, which doesn’t seem very likely to happen–. Israel has said, we want to have full control over the major settlement blocks, we want to annex them, we want permanent Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley. You know, these are not compatible with the idea of a viable Palestinian state. So in that context, the notion that there’s going to be a Palestinian state in any real sense, I don’t think it is real. But I think that the Palestinian population is still debating: is this still something we should fight for; is it something that is already gone, no longer possible, and we should be focusing on the creation of a one-state solution, based on one person, one vote? But at the end of the day, this isn’t something that the US has the right to determine. The US has the right to say, as–and I think many of us have said there should be an end to the violations of international law, an end to apartheid, an end to occupation, an end to these violations. The way it gets resoled, whether it’s one state, two states, that’s for the people there to decide. It’s not for us to impose.

JAY: Now, Netanyahu’s going to speak to Congress, probably on Monday. He’s here. AIPAC’s happening this weekend, which is the big pro-Israel lobby group here. This speech is timed to be part of this weekend. In fact, it’s probably more about this weekend than it is about anything else, which means: is there going to be any real fight, do you think, between Obama and Netanyahu–not publicly, but are they going to actually turn some screws here?

BENNIS: I think there’s going to be a significant fight tomorrow, when the president and prime minister Netanyahu meet privately. I think that Netanyahu is going to say, I have more influence in Congress right now than you do. And I think President Obama, I hope, is going to say, this isn’t your country, so you’d better stop interfering in our internal affairs. I don’t think that’s what he’s going to say. I think he’s going to try to bridge the small gaps that have emerged. I do not see the possibility that there is going to be serious pressure, especially not public pressure, from President Obama to Prime Minister Netanyahu. The last time this happened, when we were told there’s pressure, the US is pressuring Israel, this is terrible, the reality was there was no pressure. What was going on then was a series of requests. The US said, please stop expanding settlements. Israel said no. The US repeated its requests two or three times and then stopped requesting. Real pressure would have said, please stop building settlement expansions. Israel says no. And the answer then is, okay, you’re a sovereign country, you can do what you want, but you know that $30 billion in military aid that we’re giving you over this ten-year period? You can kiss that goodbye. And you know how we always defend you in the Security Council so that your political and military leaders are never held accountable for their war crimes? We’re not doing that anymore. That’s what pressure looks like. We didn’t see it then; I don’t think we’re going to see it now. But until we do, even the possibility of something that looks like a two-state solution is going to remain out of reach.

JAY: Or even some kind of mitigation of Israeli suppression of Palestinian assertion of their rights, ’cause in his speech he talked about how we even have to tell our friends not to suppress opposition movements, but Israel wasn’t included in that.

BENNIS: He seemed to exclude the Palestinians from a lot here. He spoke about the need for people to rule themselves, but the Palestinians didn’t come into that equation. He spoke of the fact that every state has the right of self-defense, but Palestine is to be disarmed, is to be demilitarized. So in every way that he’s saying the Arab Spring needs x, y, and z for the region, except for Palestinians, that was very problematic in his speech.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

BENNIS: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.