Analysis: Obama's vital new start... and first misstep

He reinforced the portrayal of Israel as a modern colonial upstart.

Obama red cairo 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Obama red cairo 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Astutely invoking his own personal Muslim background, and wrapping his challenge in words of appreciation for Islam as a potential force for tolerance, President Barack Obama nonetheless spoke harsh truths to the Muslim world in Cairo on Thursday. And he was applauded. Offering, and demanding, a new beginning in relations between Islam and the West, he appealed to a respect for human life which he said was common to all faiths, but which he stressed Muslim radicals had come to disregard. "We will... relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security. Because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women and children," he said. And he was applauded. This was, of course, only a first step. "No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust," he noted. But one way to measure the achievement even this single speech constituted is to ask whether his predecessor could have conceived it, delivered it and been cheered for it. The answer, on all three counts, is no. From the particular, partisan perspective of the Netanyahu government, the content was as problematic as would have been expected - no more so, but certainly no less. There was the insistent reiteration of the two-state vision, the repeated outlawing of even natural growth in the settlements - albeit in a clause that was notable for its plainly deliberate semantic complexity - and the outlining of a future multi-faith Jerusalem. Here, Obama was setting out traditional American policy - positions that accord with former president Bill Clinton's eleventh-hour effort to achieve a permanent agreement in 2000, positions that were anathema then, and are anathema now, to the Likud and the Right. From the broader, nonpartisan Israeli perspective, it was heartening to hear the president tell the Muslim world of America's "unbreakable bond" with our country, and to hear him highlight the "cultural and historical ties" at the heart of that relationship, rather than mere cold, potentially transient American interests. It was good to hear him make clear that the Arab League peace initiative was "an important beginning, but not the end of [Arab states'] responsibilities," and urge the Arab world "to recognize Israel's legitimacy" and stop using the Arab-Israeli conflict as a pretext "to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems." Less encouraging was the strikingly brief portion of his speech devoted to Iran. "When it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point," he said, promisingly. But in choosing to continue by asserting Iran's right to "access peaceful nuclear power," he offered no reassurance to Arab regimes panicked by Teheran's drive to acquire the bomb, and absolutely no reassurance to Israel. Watching from here, his even-handed attribution of blame for the failure of peace efforts to date was jarring indeed. "For more than 60 years," the president declared, the Palestinian people "have 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." To which most Israelis, having now witnessed even Ehud Olmert's ultra-generous two-state terms being derisively brushed aside by Mahmoud Abbas, would retort: "And whose fault is that?" But Obama used his platform, too, to insist that "Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed." And, seconds later, he repeated and elaborated: "It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered." He said this without including a parallel criticism of Israel's military response to such killing. He said this to a Muslim audience in Cairo. Where he - terribly - missed a vital opportunity from Israel's point of view, however, was in legitimizing our Jewish nation-state solely on the basis of our people's persecution through the centuries, which "culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust." Yes, of course, denying the Holocaust is "baseless, ignorant and hateful." And yes, "threatening Israel with destruction" does indeed serve "to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve." But our rights in this land are not predicated solely, or even primarily, on the tragedies that have befallen us during our history in exile. Those rights relate, rather, to the fact that we were in exile - from this land, this historic Jewish homeland. This is the only place on earth where the Jews have ever been sovereign, the place we never willingly left, the place to which we always prayed to return. The culminating tragedy of the Holocaust occurred only because we had been denied that rightful homeland. Six million Jewish lives were lost because that legitimacy was not internationally internalized in time. This president, in that place, should have emphasized the point - stressed the physical root of our legitimacy to a Muslim world, and especially a Palestinian populace, that overwhelmingly refuses to acknowledge it. Instead, unfortunately, the president spoke of the "displacement" of Palestinians "brought by Israel's founding" (while making no mention of the Arab world's rejection of the Arab entity that would have been simultaneously created alongside us). In so doing, he reinforced the very portrayal of Israel as a modern colonial upstart that Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad so cynically and strategically asserts. In so painstakingly calibrated an address, delivered in so vital and urgent a cause, this was a stark failure, and one Obama should himself recognize the need to rectify as he translates his talk into action. For Muslim recognition of our fundamental right to be here, precisely here, is central to the president's admirable quest to make a better world, a peaceful world, a new beginning.