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 he said was a new vision for US foreign policy in the Middle East. Here’s what he had to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves and reach their full potential in a sovereign and contiguous state. As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself by itself against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state.
JAY: Now joining us from Ramallah, Palestine, to give his views on President Obama’s speech is Omar Barghouti. Omar is independent Palestinian researcher, commentator, and human rights activist. He’s a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and a Palestinian civil society boycott, disinvestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel. So, Omar, what is your reaction to the speech in general, and then more specifically about Israel and Palestine?
OMAR BARGHOUTI, INDEPENDENT PALESTINIAN HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST: I just want to comment on one specific line in this speech which may say it all. President Obama said that the Arab democratic spring has made al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden irrelevant even before he was executed by US forces. There’s another person who has become almost irrelevant by the Arab democratic spring, and that’s President Obama. I don’t know how long it will take him to realize that, but he’s becoming less and less relevant to people in the region. As everyone in the West was waiting by their TVs to watch him, hardly anyone cared in our region, in our part of the world–maybe Netanyahu, and maybe Mahmoud Abbas. But for most people I know of, including commentators, analysts, and so on, hardly anyone cared, really, what Obama had to say, because (A) no one expected him to say anything new, and, lo and behold, he did not say anything really new. Two, even if he said something new, who cares?
JAY: You say what President Obama says is somewhat irrelevant in the region, but at the same time, the United States is still a major funder to Israel, and both in terms of money and military support; also for the Gulf Cooperation Council countries–Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and so on. It’s still the behemoth in the region. So why wouldn’t people care what President Obama has to say?
BARGHOUTI: Oh, absolutely. No one is denying that the US is the main partner of Israel in committing its crimes against Palestinians and other Arabs. No one denies that US complicity is the reason why we have so many dictatorships in our region. So no one is denying that. But I’m saying no one has held his or her breath waiting for Obama to give us anything positive that can help the democratic social justice spring in the Arab world, and least of all in the occupied Palestinian territory. The fact that Arab peoples are taking initiative on their own and deposing regimes that have been supported by the US administrations for decades says it all, really, that the US administration does not realize that it is not part of the solution. It has not been part of the Arab revolutionary changes. In fact, those changes were very much against US establishment’s interests in the region, ’cause those dictators have been serving US interests, the establishment interests, very well, not the people’s interests, in the US.
JAY: Well, do you think there’s some recognition of this fact that this has been the history of US foreign policy in the region and that President Obama’s saying it’s time for a new vision? And here’s an example of at least the kind of words he was using.
OBAMA: 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. There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity. Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise. 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. Of course, as we do, we must proceed with a sense of humility. It’s not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo. It was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it is the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome. 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. But we can and we will speak up for a set of core principles, principles that have guided our response to the events over the past six months. The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.
JAY: So do you think that at least this is a different kind of positioning?
BARGHOUTI: You know, that doesn’t work with Arabs in general. We don’t fall for that, because he got interested in the vendor when the vendor won over the dictator. He was with the dictator up to the very last minute, when he was actually flying out of Tunisia. Only then did the White House take any position that’s slightly positive. Same with Mubarak, the dictator of Egypt. With Israeli influence, the US kept supporting Mubarak up to really the very last minute, when they saw that he’s crumbling, his regime is crumbling. And only then they started to speak a bit positively about the Egyptian popular revolution. So the fact is, no thanks to any US role in any of these Arab revolutions–in fact, if anything, the US has played a very negative role. So the best thing that President Obama can do for the region is just leave us alone. We can build democracy on our own. We’ve seen how you, the US administration, builds democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. No, thank you. That’s not the kind of democracy we need.
JAY: In his speech, President Obama spoke about the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Here’s a clip of that.
OBAMA: 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.
JAY: So President Obama seems to be saying something that’s certainly quite different than Netanyahu’s saying, which is that Hamas possibly could be included in these negotiations, something that Netanyahu’s made very clear is absolute no to them. Obama says they’re going to have to answer these questions about Hamas’s unwillingness to recognize Israel. But it’s not the kind of language, certainly, you would have heard perhaps from a President Bush that simply would have called Hamas terrorist. So does this reflect a different position, then, by the US from Israel?
BARGHOUTI: Well, in your question, you’re assuming that the US position is identical to Israel’s. And that’s in fact true, and that is the problem. Instead of talking what Hamas and Fatah should answer to Israel, he never mentions that while Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state–and that’s the key, and I’ll talk about that later–Israel is wiping out our existence in reality, concretely, on the ground. Forget about verbal recognition. Israel does not just not recognize our right to exist; it is actually disappearing us as we speak. As President Obama is speaking, Israel is ethnically cleansing more and more Palestinians, building more colonies on occupied territories, and denying our refugees the right to return, and carrying on with its apartheid policies in Israel, passing more and more racist laws. So they’re disappearing the Palestinians as President Obama is so concerned about a verbal recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Having said that, what does that sentence mean? President Obama again reiterated his new position, which was not the position of Clinton, say, or even presidents before then, that Israel should be a Jewish state, and he repeated that and said a state of the Jewish people. Is he willing to say that the US is a state of the Christian people? What would people feel if President Obama had said that? What does it mean for Palestinians who’ve been ethnically cleansed from today’s Israel and Palestinians who today live in Israel with Israeli citizenship, when somebody, a president of another country that’s a partner in Israeli crimes, says that your country shall not be yours, it will be the state of the Jewish people? He’s reducing us not just to second-class citizens; he’s reducing us to nonexistent citizens. If the US were a state of the Christian people, Jews in the US, Muslims, Hindus, atheists would have no room in that state. A state based on equal rights for all should not agree that any other state has a right, a divine right, to be an ethnocentric state, a racist, exclusivist state.
JAY: So this speech was billed as being directed at least partly towards the Arab peoples, the Palestinian people, and to show that the American state is on the side of this Arab Spring, Arab uprising. Will it resonate in that way with the Arab people?
BARGHOUTI: A very negative resonance, I suspect. He fell into all the traps that people expected him to, coming across as the most biased president to Israel’s interests so far, the most biased US president so far, maybe after Bush junior, coming across as offering some bribes to the Egyptian revolution–I’ll wipe out $1 billion in debts and I’ll give you another $1 billion. Well, you were privy to the fact that the dictator Mubarak was stealing billions and billions, some say tens of billions of dollars, most of it invested in the US for 30 years, and you had nothing to say about that. And now you’re offering the Egyptian revolution $1 billion and some entrepreneur’s support system in Congress. I mean, really, what does President Obama think of the Arab people, regardless of his rhetoric?
JAY: To be fair, there was one statement in his speech that said that the United States would assist in recovering stolen assets. One assumes he meant Mubarak. I guess now we’ll see how real that is.
BARGHOUTI: But, I mean, he misses the point about the Arab revolutions. It’s not just about a vendor who lost his dignity. It’s about people asking for social justice. And this is the term that he ignored completely. It’s about democracy, freedom, and social justice. Social justice, by definition, means that US and Western pillage, the exploitation of the resources of the region, have to come to an end. We have to rise as economic powers. Egypt has to rise as an economic power based on its own resources and its own people’s capacities, not upon US dictates, not benefiting Google, Intel, and Northrup Grumman, but benefiting Egyptian people, Egyptian companies, and so on. So trying to bribe the current Egyptian leadership, which is not yet elected leadership, with a couple of billion dollars is really too little too late and missing the point completely about the Egyptian revolution.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Omar.
BARGHOUTI: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
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