INDEX (full stories follow below Democracy Now Headlines)
Remarks of President Barack Obama – As Prepared for Delivery
“A Moment of Opportunity”
U.S. Department of State
May 19, 2011
As Prepared for Delivery –
I want to thank Hillary Clinton, who has traveled so much these last six months that she is approaching a new landmark – one million frequent flyer miles. I count on Hillary every day, and I believe that she will go down as of the finest Secretaries of State in our nation’s history.
The State Department is a fitting venue to mark a new chapter in American diplomacy. For six months, we have witnessed an extraordinary change take place in the Middle East and North Africa. Square by square; town by town; country by country; the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights. Two leaders have stepped aside. More may follow. And though these countries may be a great distance from our shores, we know that our own future is bound to this region by the forces of economics and security; history and faith.
Today, I would like to talk about this change – the forces that are driving it, and how we can respond in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security. Already, we have done much to shift our foreign policy following a decade defined by two costly conflicts. After years of war in Iraq, we have removed 100,000 American troops and ended our combat mission there. In Afghanistan, we have broken the Taliban’s momentum, and this July we will begin to bring our troops home and continue transition to Afghan lead. And after years of war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, we have dealt al Qaeda a huge blow by killing its leader – Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden was no martyr. He was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate – an insistence that Muslims had to take up arms against the West, and that violence against men, women and children was the only path to change. He rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims in favor of violent extremism; his agenda focused on what he could destroy – not what he could build.
Bin Laden and his murderous vision won some adherents. But even before his death, al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life. By the time we found bin Laden, al Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands.
That story of self-determination began six months ago in Tunisia. On December 17, a young vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi was devastated when a police officer confiscated his cart. This was not unique. It is the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world – the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity. Only this time, something different happened. After local officials refused to hear his complaint, this young man who had never been particularly active in politics went to the headquarters of the provincial government, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire.
Sometimes, in the course of history, the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has built up for years. In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat. So it was in Tunisia, as that vendor’s act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands. And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home – day after day, week after week, until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power.
The story of this Revolution, and the ones that followed, should not have come as a surprise. The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not. In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of the few. In too many countries, a citizen like that young vendor had nowhere to turn – no honest judiciary to hear his case; no independent media to give him voice; no credible political party to represent his views; no free and fair election where he could choose his leader.
This lack of self determination – the chance to make of your life what you will – has applied to the region’s economy as well. Yes, some nations are blessed with wealth in oil and gas, and that has led to pockets of prosperity. But in a global economy based on knowledge and innovation, no development strategy can be based solely upon what comes out of the ground. Nor can people reach their potential when you cannot start a business without paying a bribe.
In the face of these challenges, too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half century after the end of colonialism. Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression. Divisions of tribe, ethnicity and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else.
But the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and diversion won’t work anymore. Satellite television and the Internet provide a window into the wider world – a world of astonishing progress in places like India, Indonesia and Brazil. Cell phones and social networks allow young people to connect and organize like never before. A new generation has emerged. And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied.
In Cairo, we heard the voice of the young mother who said, “It’s like I can finally breathe fresh air for the first time.”
In Sanaa, we heard the students who chanted, “The night must come to an end.”
In Benghazi, we heard the engineer who said, “Our words are free now. It’s a feeling you can’t explain.”
In Damascus, we heard the young man who said, “After the first yelling, the first shout, you feel dignity.”
Those shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region. And through the moral force of non-violence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades.
Of course, change of this magnitude does not come easily. In our day and age – a time of 24 hour news cycles, and constant communication – people expect the transformation of the region to be resolved in a matter of weeks. But it will be years before this story reaches its end. Along the way, there will be good days, and bad days. In some places, change will be swift; in others, gradual. And as we have seen, calls for change may give way to fierce contests for power.
The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds. For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce, and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.
We will continue to do these things, with the firm belief that America’s interests are not hostile to peoples’ hopes; they are essential to them. We believe that no one benefits from a nuclear arms race in the region, or al Qaeda’s brutal attacks. People everywhere would see their economies crippled by a cut off in energy supplies. As we did in the Gulf War, we will not tolerate aggression across borders, and we will keep our commitments to friends and partners.
Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind. Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our own interests at their expense. Given that this mistrust runs both ways – as Americans have been seared by hostage taking, violent rhetoric, and terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of our citizens – a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and Muslim communities.
That’s why, two years ago in Cairo, I began to broaden our engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. I believed then – and I believe now – that we have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self determination of individuals. The status quo is not sustainable. Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder.
So we face an historic opportunity. We have embraced 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.
As we do, we must proceed with a sense of humility. It is not America that put people into the streets of Tunis and Cairo – it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and must determine their outcome. Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short term interests do not align perfectly with our long term vision of the region. But we can – and will – speak out 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.
We support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders – whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.
And finally, we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.
Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest– today I am making it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.
Let me be specific. First, it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.
That effort begins in Egypt and Tunisia, where the stakes are high –as Tunisia was at the vanguard of this democratic wave, and Egypt is both a longstanding partner and the Arab World’s largest nation. Both nations can set a strong example through free and fair elections; a vibrant civil society; accountable and effective democratic institutions; and responsible regional leadership. But our support must also extend to nations where transitions have yet to take place.
Unfortunately, in too many countries, calls for change have been answered by violence. The most extreme example is Libya, where Moammar Gaddafi launched a war against his people, promising to hunt them down like rats. As I said when the United States joined an international coalition to intervene, we cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people, and we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to impose regime change by force – no matter how well-intended it may be.
But in Libya, we saw the prospect of imminent massacre, had a mandate for action, and heard the Libyan people’s call for help. Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed. The message would have been clear: keep power by killing as many people as it takes. Now, time is working against Gaddafi. He does not have control over his country. The opposition has organized a legitimate and credible Interim Council. And when Gaddafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end, and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed.
While Libya has faced violence on the greatest scale, it is not the only place where leaders have turned to repression to remain in power. Most recently, the Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens. The United States has condemned these actions, and working with the international community we have stepped up our sanctions on the Syrian regime – including sanctions announced yesterday on President Assad and those around him.
The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way. The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests; release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests; allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Dara’a; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition. Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and isolated abroad
Thus far, Syria has followed its Iranian ally, seeking assistance from Tehran in the tactics of suppression. This speaks to the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime, which says it stand for the rights of protesters abroad, yet suppresses its people at home. Let us remember that the first peaceful protests were in the streets of Tehran, where the government brutalized women and men, and threw innocent people into jail. We still hear the chants echo from the rooftops of Tehran. The image of a young woman dying in the streets is still seared in our memory. And we will continue to insist that the Iranian people deserve their universal rights, and a government that does not smother their aspirations.
Our opposition to Iran’s intolerance – as well as its illicit nuclear program, and its sponsorship of terror – is well known. But if America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for change consistent with the principles that I have outlined today. That is true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power. And that is true, today, in Bahrain.
Bahrain is a long-standing partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law. Nevertheless, we have insisted publically and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.
Indeed, one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict. In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. There, the Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence for a democratic process, even as they have taken full responsibility for their own security. Like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. As they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.
So in the months ahead, America must use all our influence to encourage reform in the region. Even as we acknowledge that each country is different, we will need to speak honestly about the principles that we believe in, with friend and foe alike. Our message is simple: if you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States. We must also build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future – particularly young people.
We will continue to make good on the commitments that I made in Cairo – to build networks of entrepreneurs, and expand exchanges in education; to foster cooperation in science and technology, and combat disease. Across the region, we intend to provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned, and who speak uncomfortable truths. And we will use the technology to connect with – and listen to – the voices of the people.
In fact, real reform will not come at the ballot box alone. Through our efforts we must support those basic rights to speak your mind and access information. We will support open access to the Internet, and the right of journalists to be heard – whether it’s a big news organization or a blogger. In the 21st century, information is power; the truth cannot be hidden; and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens.
Such open discourse is important even if what is said does not square with our worldview. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard, even if we disagree with them. We look forward to working with all who embrace genuine and inclusive democracy. What we will oppose is an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others, and to hold power through coercion – not consent. Because democracy depends not only on elections, but also strong and accountable institutions, and respect for the rights of minorities.
Such tolerance is particularly important when it comes to religion. In Tahrir Square, we heard Egyptians from all walks of life chant, “Muslims, Christians, we are one.” America will work to see that this spirit prevails – that all faiths are respected, and that bridges are built among them. In a region that was the birthplace of three world religions, intolerance can lead only to suffering and stagnation. And for this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.
What is true for religious minorities is also true when it comes to the rights of women. History shows that countries are more prosperous and peaceful when women are empowered. That is why we will continue to insist that universal rights apply to women as well as men – by focusing assistance on child and maternal health; by helping women to teach, or start a business; by standing up for the right of women to have their voices heard, and to run for office. For the region will never reach its potential when more than half its population is prevented from achieving their potential.
Even as we promote political reform and human rights in the region, our efforts cannot stop there. So the second way that we must support positive change in the region is through our efforts to advance economic development for nations that transition to democracy.
After all, politics alone has not put protesters into the streets. The tipping point for so many people is the more constant concern of putting food on the table and providing for a family. Too many in the region wake up with few expectations other than making it through the day, and perhaps the hope that their luck will change. Throughout the region, many young people have a solid education, but closed economies leave them unable to find a job. Entrepreneurs are brimming with ideas, but corruption leaves them unable to profit from them.
The greatest untapped resource in the Middle East and North Africa is the talent of its people. In the recent protests, we see that talent on display, as people harness technology to move the world. It’s no coincidence that one of the leaders of Tahrir Square was an executive for Google. That energy now needs to be channeled, in country after country, so that economic growth can solidify the accomplishments of the street. Just as democratic revolutions can be triggered by a lack of individual opportunity, successful democratic transitions depend upon an expansion of growth and broad-based prosperity.
Drawing from what we’ve learned around the world, we think it’s important to focus on trade, not just aid; and investment, not just assistance. The goal must be a model in which protectionism gives way to openness; the reigns of commerce pass from the few to the many, and the economy generates jobs for the young. America’s support for democracy will therefore be based on ensuring financial stability; promoting reform; and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy – starting with Tunisia and Egypt.
First, we have asked the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to present a plan at next week’s G-8 summit for what needs to be done to stabilize and modernize the economies of Tunisia and Egypt. Together, we must help them recover from the disruption of their democratic upheaval, and support the governments that will be elected later this year. And we are urging other countries to help Egypt and Tunisia meet its near-term financial needs.
Second, we do not want a democratic Egypt to be saddled by the debts of its past. So we will relieve a democratic Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt, and work with our Egyptian partners to invest these resources to foster growth and entrepreneurship. We will help Egypt regain access to markets by guaranteeing $1 billion in borrowing that is needed to finance infrastructure and job creation. And we will help newly democratic governments recover assets that were stolen.
Third, we are working with Congress to create Enterprise Funds to invest in Tunisia and Egypt. These will be modeled on funds that supported the transitions in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. OPIC will soon launch a $2 billion facility to support private investment across the region. And we will work with allies to refocus the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development so that it provides the same support for democratic transitions and economic modernization in the Middle East and North Africa as it has in Europe.
Fourth, the United States will launch a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa. If you take out oil exports, this region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland. So we will work with the EU to facilitate more trade within the region, build on existing agreements to promote integration with U.S. and European markets, and open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement. Just as EU membership served as an incentive for reform in Europe, so should the vision of a modern and prosperous economy create a powerful force for reform in the Middle East and North Africa.
Prosperity also requires tearing down walls that stand in the way of progress – the corruption of elites who steal from their people; the red tape that stops an idea from becoming a business; the patronage that distributes wealth based on tribe or sect. We will help governments meet international obligations, and invest efforts anti-corruption; by working with parliamentarians who are developing reforms, and activists who use technology to hold government accountable.
Let me conclude by talking about another cornerstone of our approach to the region, and that relates to the pursuit of peace.
For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region. For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could get blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own. Moreover, this conflict has come with a larger cost the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security, prosperity, and empowerment to ordinary people.
My Administration has worked with the parties and the international community for over two years to end this conflict, yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks. The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on for decades, and sees a stalemate. Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward.
I disagree. At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever.
For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.
As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.
The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself. A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people – not just a few leaders – must believe peace is possible. The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.
Ultimately, it is up to Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them, nor can endless delay make the problem go away. But what America and the international community can do is state frankly what everyone knows: a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.
So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel. 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. 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 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. The duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.
These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I know that these steps alone will not resolve this conflict. Two wrenching and emotional issues remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians.
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. In particular, 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. In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.
I recognize how hard this will be. Suspicion and hostility has been passed on for generations, and at times it has hardened. But I’m convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past. We see that spirit in the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas, who helped start an organization that brought together Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones. He said, “I gradually realized that the only hope for progress was to recognize the face of the conflict.” And we see it in the actions of a Palestinian who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza. “I have the right to feel angry,” he said. “So many people were expecting me to hate. My answer to them is I shall not hate…Let us hope,” he said, “for tomorrow”
That is the choice that must be made – not simply in this conflict, but across the entire region – a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past, and the promise of the future. It’s a choice that must be made by leaders and by people, and it’s a choice that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife.
For all the challenges that lie ahead, we see many reasons to be hopeful. In Egypt, we see it in the efforts of young people who led protests. In Syria, we see it in the courage of those who brave bullets while chanting, ‘peaceful,’ ‘peaceful.’ In Benghazi, a city threatened with destruction, we see it in the courthouse square where people gather to celebrate the freedoms that they had never known. Across the region, those rights that we take for granted are being claimed with joy by those who are prying lose the grip of an iron fist.
For the American people, the scenes of upheaval in the region may be unsettling, but the forces driving it are not unfamiliar. Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire. Our people fought a painful civil war that extended freedom and dignity to those who were enslaved. And I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of non-violence as a way to perfect our union – organizing, marching, and protesting peacefully together to make real those words that declared our nation: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”
Those words must guide our response to the change that is transforming the Middle East and North Africa – words which tell us that repression will fail, that tyrants will fall, and that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights. It will not be easy. There is no straight line to progress, and hardship always accompanies a season of hope. But the United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves. Now, we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.
I’ve just listened to (start at around the 5:00 mark to avoid Hillary’s intro) and read Barack Obama’s Middle East speech. And while it has many good points that are worth praising, overall for the entire region I think the proof will lie in how or if what he says is implemented on the ground. After a disappointing follow-up to the Cairo speech, I’m not prepared yet to say that what Obama said today augurs well for U.S. policy in the region. It might. But if we continue to dither as we have at key junctures, all the golden words and sentiments will be nothing but words supported by no action.
But mostly I want to focus on the Israeli-Arab section of the speech, which was disappointing. Yes, it reaffirmed U.S. commitment to 1967 lines as the basis of a settlement and condemned Israel’s continuing settlement enterprise. In some other ways, it did not stake out a knee jerk pro-Israel position regarding issues like Jerusalem and Right of Return. But in other major ways the speech, and attitudes which informed it, disappointed, and at times profoundly so.
There was the adoption of Israel’s perspective on bogus issues like “delegitimization,” which is a code word for BDS, a movement that promises to becomes stronger and more insistent the longer stalemate lasts (and it will, make no mistake about that). There was the disappointing perspective on the coming General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood, which Obama misconstrued thus:
Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.
In this, Obama is on the wrong side of history and profoundly so. Look at the language he used, not even mentioning the word statehood. Instead, using the condescending, even insulting formulation “symbolic actions.” Not even conceding that the campaign for such a vote will have anything to do with Palestine and the rights of Palestinians to a state of their own. Instead calling it an effort “to isolate Israel.” This is wrong, Mr. President. Profoundly wrong.
And there were other troubling omissions and lapses like this:
As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself -– by itself -– against any threat.
Here again, we see no awareness that it is often the Israeli military itself that is not a self-protective defender of Israeli security, but rather an aggressor that kills and maims at will. Where is the recognition that Palestine will need protection from Israeli violence? Where is the recognition of the need for a balanced security presence that takes the needs of both parties into account? Why the insistence that Israel “by itself” should be the guarantor of security? Why the refusal to concede that an international security presence will be needed to create such a sense of safety on both sides?
No, this speech, though it framed itself as taking the interests of both sides into account, was written either by, or with too much input from the Dennis Rosses of the administration. And the perspective of Dennis Ross will not satisfy the Palestinians.
Returning to the speech, it adopted Israel’s insistence that it is solely a Jewish state and homeland for only one ethnic/religious groups living within its borders, the Jews. No mention of the 1.5 million non-Jewish citizens. As far as this speech is concerned, they don’t exist. You have blinders Mr. President as far as Israel’s Palestinian citizens. And as you yourself said in other parts of this speech, the majority in a society cannot impose its will on a minority and oppress a minority and hope to have a just, stable society. You said it was wrong for the Sunni minority in Bahrain to impose itself on the Shia minority, and rightfully so. But you forgot Israel’s Palestinians who, though a minority, are also oppressed inside Israel. I wonder why?
Further, the speech maintained the Israeli insistence on meaningless, imbalanced pre-conditions like prior recognition of Israel even before negotiations begin. This is the way in which Obama excludes Hamas from the picture as a viable participant, when he must know that an agreement that attempts to exclude Hamas will never work.
In important ways, the Israel-Palestine portion of this speech was curiously disconnected from the assumptions and principles that informed his discussion of the human rights focus of other elements of the speech. There was no sense that what was happening both in Israel and in neighboring states had any relation to the Arab spring and the call for democracy and freedom. No recognition that just as dictators in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria were and are being called to account, so the same principles and demands hold true regarding Israel. In short, the Arab spring impacts Israel as well since it is part of the Middle East. It cannot duck the geographical place and context in which it lives. Curiously, Pres. Obama did just that.
Finally, the question must be asked in as plain and blunt a way as possible: do Israel and the U.S. even deserve, given these two speeches by the U.S. president and the recent one before the Knesset by Israel’s leader, an opportunity to sit down with Palestinians to negotiate peace? The answer, I’m profoundly sorry to say is No, they do not. For if you want to talk about preconditions for negotiations, let’s do that. On the U.S. and Israeli side there must be recognition of some inalienable principles without which Palestinians cannot even enter into a negotiating process. And Pres. Obama showed himself profoundly ignorant of where those red lines are in his speech today.
You are going nowhere, Mr. President, and going there fast.
It should be noted that Obama’s poodle, J Street, sure enough as if on cue, published a full page ad in today’s N.Y. Times which also derided the General Assembly vote:
…Recognizing a Palestinian state and negotiating now is in Israel’s best interest…Leaving it to the UN in September is not.
Interestingly, the Time’s quotes an Israeli government source (most likely a member of Bibi’s entourage) saying:
…One Israeli official described as a “train wreck” coming their way a United Nations General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood in September.
Precisely the image I’ve been using here except that I’ve been viewing it as a train of destiny as in:
People get ready there’s a train a-comin’
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‘ Report by Abd-al-Sattar Hutaytah, Muhammad Sha`ban, Muhammad Abd-al-Ra’uf, and Walid Abd-al-Rahman in Cairo: “Obama’s Speech”
Al-Sharq al-Awsat Online
Friday, May 20, 2011 …
Document Type: OSC Translated Text …
‘On her part, political activist Asma Mahfuz, one of the leaders of the 25 January revolution, expressed anger at Obama’s speech. She told Al-Sharq al-Awsat: “I do not understand the reason for Obama’s talk in which he glorified the Arab revolutions since his administration and the previous US Administrations have supported the dictatorship regimes in the Middle East throughout the past years, and we heard this talk in Obama’s speech in Cairo.”
Mahfuz added: “We say to Obama: Play another trick. We believe that this speech has come to break Israel’s isolation and to support it after its feeling of a full siege. Obama has repeated more than once and emphasized the US friendship with Israel at a time when he expressed concern over the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and HAMAS, in which Egypt played a great role to achieve.” She added that Obama is trying, through voicing support for civil society’s organizations that are not recognized, to give the impression of a US role in paving the way for the Arab revolutions, which is something inaccurate.
Mahfuz added: “Before speaking to us about the US democracy and values, Obama should have abided by these values. He should have put Bin Ladin on a just trial, but he behaved as a bandit.” ‘
Israeli suffering is clearly physical, that of the Palestinians merely psychological – a strange inversion of reality: “For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could get blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own” The ‘taught to hate’ line is particularly offensive – as if anyone needed guidance to find Israel’s behaviour worthy of strongly adverse emotion.
The future security arrangements would be almost as one-sided as they are today. “Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met.” The Palestinian state must be “non-militarised”, while the United States commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. Nothing new there, of course.
The inclusion of democratically elected Hamas representatives in a Palestinian government of national unity “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.” Strange how no one ever imagines a Palestinian veto over the inclusion of rightwing racists and expansionists in Israeli governments.
The United States has now divided the Middle East into five distinct categories of countries facing popular unrest, with different solutions for each:
Israel – full U.S. commitment to its security and international diplomatic cover for anyone who dares to criticise it. The angry Arabs here should recognize Israel, abandon resistance and go back to fruitless talks in which they have nothing to offer but further obeisance to their Israeli masters. If Israel offers them enough scraps of land to make a viable state, they should be very grateful.
Egypt and Tunisia – since they’ve already overthrown our old allies, we’ll have to live with it and put on a brave face. Since Egypt is neighbour to Israel and has a large army, we will give it some debt relief and other economic benefits. A little growth and a show of U.S. largesse might help prevent our enemies winning democratic elections.
Bahrain (home to the Sixth Fleet) – the government here has been quite naughty but we love it really and and we are “committed to its (Bahrain’s) security”. The government should clean up its act and the opposition should abide by the rule of law, ignore Iranian enticements and join open-ended talks with the government.
Syria and Yemen – President Assad is not completely a lost cause and President Saleh in Yemen “needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power.” In theory, if Assad leads a transition to democracy, he can obtain rehabilitation. An easy position to take, because U.S. policy can be recalibrated at any moment to reflect the latest assessment of how Assad is doing.
Libya – Gaddafi is a lost cause, it’s just a question of time. “When Gaddafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end, and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed.”
As usual, there are three main determinants in U.S. policy in all these cases:1. What does this regime do to serve or subvert Americans interests in the Middle East? The more the regime serves, the softer the U.S. stance, and vice versa.
2. What are the chances this particular regime will be overthrown by angry Arabs? The more likely it is to fall, the harder the U.S. stance towards the ruler, and vice versa.
3. If this regime is overthrown, what is likely to take its place and to what extent would the successor regime serve U.S. interests? This is much harder to judge. The conventional wisdom is that this factor has worked in favour of President Assad, whom the Israelis might prefer to see survive.
The other factors, not specific to Arab regime change, are the chronic distortion of U.S. foreign policy by domestic lobbyists and Washington’s broader regional alliances, especially with Saudi Arabia and the patrimonial states in the Gulf.
Obama (in vivid contrast to his predecessor) is a skillful propagandist, with a keen political eye, and an ear for progressive voices. He correctly notes (as we have) that al-Qaeda has been left behind by events since the start of the Arab Spring (and even refrains from too unseemly self-congratulation on offing bin Laden):
By the time we found bin Laden, al Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands.
But note the admirable subtlety with which he states that the US empire must impose a capitalist cast on the Arab revolutions:
The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds. For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace. We will continue to do these things, with the firm belief that America’s interests are not hostile to people’s hopes; they’re essential to them.
Did you catch that reference to “securing the free flow of commerce”? A few short years ago, the US was about to move ahead with a Middle East Free Trade Agreement (MEFTA)—and certainly backed tyrants like Mubarak for all those decades because they were committed to pro-capitalist (as distinct from pro-democratic) “reform” (as well as because of their willingness to betray the Palestinians). Now, the future of the region seems like it’s up for grabs. And even if there hasn’t been any explicitly socialist direction to the Arab revolutions, Washington must certainly be worried about the critical role of militant labor in bringing down Mubarak’s regime.
So, how to ensure that the awakening Arab world continues to go along with the agenda of pro-capitalist “reform”? First, by seeming to embrace the revolutionary movements. Hence:
The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region. (Applause.)
Uh-huh. But not to the point of being unwilling to fund it. And:
America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator.
Oh? Did the US ever even threaten to cut off aid to Ben Ali? Not that we’ve heard.
Unfortunately, in too many countries, calls for change have thus far been answered by violence. The most extreme example is Libya…
Yes, but US client states have also made pretty dramatic “use of violence and repression” in recent weeks. To his credit, Obama actually mentioned some of these, including Yemen and Bahrain—although not Saudi Arabia. Obama pledges that “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.” Yet, oddly, US-made tear gas and bullets continue to fly at protesters in Sanaa and Aden. When Obama gets down to specifics, they aren’t about “transitions to democracy,” but to unrestrained capitalism. He cites four initiatives: First, he will call on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund “to present a plan at next week’s G8 summit for what needs to be done to stabilize and modernize the economies of Tunisia and Egypt” (in other words, good-bye to the last remaining Nasser-era restraints on Western access to local labor and resources). Second, a program of debt forgiveness for Egypt (to win the good will of Egyptians during this capitalist transition). And:
Third, we’re working with Congress to create Enterprise Funds to invest in Tunisia and Egypt. And these will be modeled on funds that supported the transitions in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. OPIC will soon launch a $2 billion facility to support private investment across the region. And we will work with the allies to refocus the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development so that it provides the same support for democratic transitions and economic modernization in the Middle East and North Africa as it has in Europe.
AFP informed us March 11 that senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and John McCain have introduced a bill calling for the creation of such Enterprise Funds, “modeling their legislation on a hugely successful [sic] effort to help [sic] former communist countries in Europe after the Berlin Wall fell.” (Both Kerry and McCain, not coincidentally, are also among the Hill’s most aggressive supporters of aid to the Libyan rebels.) OPIC is the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which basically serves as a government insurance company for big corporations in case their foreign assets fall victim to (*ahem*) unrest or revolution.
Fourth, the United States will launch a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa. If you take out oil exports, this entire region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland. So we will work with the EU to facilitate more trade within the region, build on existing agreements to promote integration with U.S. and European markets, and open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement. And just as EU membership served as an incentive for reform in Europe, so should the vision of a modern and prosperous economy create a powerful force for reform in the Middle East and North Africa.
Note how all the explicit references to democratic reform have disappeared from his rhetoric once he is actually down to brass tacks. Now, with refreshing honesty, it’s all about “trade liberalization.” And that “Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative” basically means another shot at MEFTA.
Prosperity also requires tearing down walls that stand in the way of progress—the corruption of elites who steal from their people; the red tape that stops an idea from becoming a business; the patronage that distributes wealth based on tribe or sect.
Again, very nicely done. The corruption and patronage are genuine grievances of the Arab protesters. But US “free trade” efforts have a habit of eliminating such “red tape” as labor protections, environmental regulations and social safety nets.
Now, the final critical point in assuring that the awakening Arab world continues to go along with this agenda: Palestine—the conflict that Obama rightly notes “has cast a shadow over the region.” Here’s Obama’s offending passage:
[W]hile the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel. 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.
What’s really maddening is that even with the reference to “mutually agreed swaps”—itself a potentially dangerous compromise—the passage has still elicited this outraged Israeli response. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bluntly retorted that the 1967 borders were “indefensible” and Israel is not going back to them. In an Oval Office appearance after two hours of talks the day after Obama’s speech, Netanyahu warned that a “peace based on illusions will crash eventually on the rocks of Middle Eastern reality… I think for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities.” (AFP, May 20) Like bantustans divided by permanent Israeli settlements and security walls instead of a contiguous state.
Danny Danon, a Likudnik who is a deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset, had a New York Times op-ed the day of Obama’s speech with the utterly sinister title “Making the Land of Israel Whole,” which included a blatant threat to annex the Occupied Territories:
In 1995, as part of the Oslo accords, Israel and the Palestinians agreed that “neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.” If the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and prime minister, Salam Fayyad, decide to disregard this section of the accords by seeking United Nations recognition of statehood, it would mean that Israel, too, is no longer bound by its contents and is freed to take unilateral action… [A] United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood would give Israel an opportunity to rectify the mistake we made in 1967 by failing to annex all of the West Bank (as we did the eastern half of Jerusalem). We could then extend full Israeli jurisdiction to the Jewish communities and uninhabited lands of the West Bank. This would put an end to a legal limbo that has existed for 44 years.
The Wall Street Journal reported the day of the speech that “Jewish donors and fund-raisers are warning the Obama re-election campaign that the president is at risk of losing financial support because of concerns about his handling of Israel.” Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations darkly warned: “It’s that people hold back, people don’t have the enthusiasm and are not rushing forward at fund-raisers to be supportive. Much more what you’ll see is holding back now.”
Netanyahu’s response to the Hamas-Fatah deal, which will hopefully put an end to the years of Palestinian internecine violence, was also both swift and predictable. “The Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas,” he said in a televised speech shortly after the reconciliation pact was cemented in Cairo. “There is no possibility for peace with both.” (Toward Freedom, May 10)
The most ironic thing is that, if only the Israeli leadership could see it, Obama’s statement on the 1967 borders is part of his effort to domesticate the Arab Spring—which is in their own interests (although not in Jewish enlightened self-interest). The denial they demonstrate over the need to relinquish control of lands they have no right to rule smells more and more like that demonstrated by Indonesia and Serbia in their blood-drenched but futile efforts to hold on to East Timor and Kosova. Let’s hope that’s not where it’s headed.
The courage of Obama’s speech should be recognized. He will have angered the two central allies of the US in the region, the governments that have formed the two pillars of US Middle East policy. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is angry at Obama (calling him more or less a wet-behind-the-ears young man) for abandoning long-time Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Saudi Arabia views Egypt as key to its own security and is extremely nervous about where politics in that country might go and how it will affect the kingdom. King Abdullah is also furious that the Obama administration has openly criticized the Sunni king of Bahrain for crushing his own democracy movement, which had a disproportionately Shiite cast (Shiites are now 58% of the citizen population but discriminated against economically and kept from expressing their majority politically). Obama if anything was more forthright and harsh in his criticisms of Manama on Thursday than he had been before. Saudi Arabia pumps on the order of 11 percent of the world daily petroleum output, has a significant impact on its price, and has hundreds of billions of dollars in reserves that it invests in the West as well as in the Middle East. Obama has taken a major risk in angering its king and adopting a policy he opposes everywhere but in Libya.
Obama was also honest and searing in his implicit criticism of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose government has obstructed peace talks with the Palestinians and pursued an inexorable and wide-ranging project of colonizing the Palestinian West Bank in hopes of ultimately creating a Greater Israel and permanently forestalling the rise of a Palestinian state. Obama had put resources and his own prestige on the line in attempting to kick-start negotiations two years ago, but the effort crashed an burned primarily because of Israeli intransigence and Obama’s special envoy on this issue, former Senator George Mitchell (who even more or less resolved the Northern Ireland conflict) has just resigned in a mixture of despair and disgust.
Obama’s call for 1967 borders to be the basis for negotiations (which would require Israel to relinquish large amounts of territory illegally usurped from the Palestinians) marks a major turning point and elicited howls of outrage in Tel Aviv.
Obama has been told by Israel-firsters in the US that his position on moving rapidly to a two-state solution endangers his ability to fund-raise among Jewish Americans (who provide a vastly disproportionate amount of money for political campaigns, estimated as high as 65% among Democrats) and therefore could imperil his campaign for a second term. To his credit, he has stuck to his guns, since a quick move to a two-state solution would benefit both the United States and Israel, not to mention the Palestinians.
So his courage and vision should be recognized.
Among the cons of his speech were evidence of Washington’s strange obsession with Iran. Syria’s Baath Party crushed dissent in 1982 when it was not allied with Iran, and does not need Iranian help to deal with Deraa. There is no evidence of an Iranian hand in Bahrain. There is no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program aiming actually to produce a bomb. This unhelpful focus on Iran derives in part from Israeli and Saudi circles, but it should be resisted. Iran is not that important in the Arab world outside Iraq (Bush’s fault) and Lebanon (the fault of the long Israeli occupation.) Where Arab publics become more influential on their own governments, as in Egypt, the governments feel constrained to improve relations with Tehran.
Likewise, the rhetoric of even-handedness on the failure of his Israeli-Palestinian talks caused him to lay blame on both the Palestinians and the Israelis, but it was the latter who refused to stop stealing Palestinian land on a large scale while the negotiations were going on, a strong disincentive for the Palestinians to talk. Moreover it is unacceptable to blame Palestinians for violence but not the armed fanatical Israeli settlers and usurpers of Palestinian land, resources and rights. Obama was also dismissive of the current Palestinian push for recognition as a state at the UN General Assembly in September, but this move in fact may be a useful way of pressuring Netanyahu into negotiating. And, it isn’t in fact the case that sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians among Arab publics was artificially engineered by authoritarian regimes to allow them to blow off steam. Anybody with a heart who knows the score would wake up heartsick about the plight of the stateless Palestinians.
Obama pointed to his winding down of the Iraq War and the withdrawal of 100,000 troops, but did not reaffirm a commitment to the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, which calls for a complete withdrawal by the end of the year. His pointing to Iraq as a success in handling Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict is bizarre. The US helped provoke a sectarian bloodbath there, and Sunnis have been made a permanent structural minority.
The aid being offered Egypt and Tunisia, while a nice gesture, is tiny. Egypt needs major debt forgiveness, and a mere one billion dollars is a drop in the bucket.
A bolder speech would have announced that the US would be moving its naval base from Bahrain because we refuse to be in bed with a repressive sectarian monarchy. It would have supported the push for Palestinian statehood at the UN as a wedge against the Likud Party’s intransigence. And it would have mentioned democratization in Riyadh along with the other capitals that were mentioned.
Still and all, it was a fine speech, a courageous speech because it challenged US allies as much as it did US foes, and it put the US on the side of Bourguiba Avenue and Tahrir Square and Benghazi and Deraa and Taizz. That is the side of history on which the US needs to stand. As a set of ideals, it was a big stride in the right direction. As practical policy, it is hard to see how it would be implemented effectively (upbraiding Israel and Bahrain slightly won’t change those crises). But, well, at least Washington is finally not standing in the way of the people in the region.