Nuances to please Israel, and to worry us

Obama was strong on the nature of the US-Israel relationship, but didn't quite tell it straight on Islam and made a disturbing comparison about suffering.

obama cairo 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
obama cairo 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
President Barack Obama's address in Cairo on Thursday was a powerful, well-structured and extremely well-worded statement to the Arab and Muslim world and should be viewed in that context. It was not directed at the world-at-large. Nor was it directed at Israel. Obama has other ways and channels of addressing Israel, and Israel has its own ways of addressing Obama. That is not to say that what Obama is saying does not affect us and that we should not take it seriously. But the powers that be in Israel would be well advised not to comment officially. They do not need to react to a statement not addressed to them. Obama sought the language he thought was best for his audience. The message, for example, was interlaced with quotations from the Koran. There was only one instance of a quotation from a Jewish text, and this is entirely in order. Similarly, there was only one quotation from a Christian text. Obama is trying to change the narrative of the American-Islamic relationship. Obviously, he sought every possible point to emphasize the more positive, more fruitful and the more optimistic aspect of that relationship. He noted that the first state to recognize the United States was Morocco, and that Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of the Koran in his personal library. And of course, when he was looking for a quotation from a Holy Scripture, he inevitably found that particular sentence as expressed in the Koran. But he painted the relationship between Islam and Western culture in terms which, to some extent, ignore the basic tenets of Islam. He painted Islam as a tolerant religion, based on the tolerance of other religions and movements. It is true that there were certain ages where it was tolerant, but there were also many others when it was not. He naturally accentuated aspects of Islam which are conducive to the narrative he wants to promote, at the expense of others. All great leaders have acted similarly in the past. But one has to recognize Islam for what it actually represents. WHEN IT comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, several things stand out: His powerful message to the Arab and Muslim world was that there is no point in trying to weaken the bond between the United States and Israel. He spoke effusively about the Holocaust: "Six million Jews were killed - more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant and hateful." This was an important statement at a time when Holocaust denial has become more prevalent in the Muslim world, the principle spokesman for this being Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet there was an additional subtle message: that there is a Jewish Holocaust and, beside it, there is what the Arabs have suffered. It might not be a Holocaust, but there is a comparison. This is going somewhat far, when it comes from the American president as a message to the Arab world. It is something that we should take note of and we should be very wary of. The Holocaust has no parallel. And sometime, not now, it should be necessary to impress upon the president that this particular point should rather not be revisited. Then came a passage that is worthy of special attention: "The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist." What the president was doing for the very first time was not extending a hand to Hamas, but telling them "you are a factor in the situation." That Hamas has a role, in unifying the Palestinian people. In other words, without Hamas, there is no Palestinian unity, and without Palestinian unity, there can be no Palestinian state: You cannot build a state upon a national movement that is hopelessly divided, split down the middle. This is the first hint of what might come, a straw in the wind. Hamas will treat this as a significant step taken by the United States toward it. There was recognition in the address that the Palestinians currently do not have the necessary institutions that serve a people. They do not have the capacity to govern since they do not have the necessary institutions. Obama was saying that the Palestinians have not yet reached the level of development which would enable them to assume responsibility tomorrow morning. This is a very important message, and if properly addressed by the government of Israel, in a discrete manner, a wise manner, it could be the basis of a positive dialogue with the United States over the recognition of a possible Palestinian state in the future. This is a major area in which there will be room for maneuver between the current government of Binyamin Netanyahu and President Obama. Finally, the president is committed to a dialogue with Iran. He wants to prevent an arms race in the Middle East. There was nothing in this section of the address saying Iranian military capability is unacceptable. I do not think there is a change in American policy on this issue, but it was one of the softest pitches that Obama has made up to now to Iran. It is the most enticing move made so far on the American-Iranian account. The writer is a former head of the Mossad (1998-2002), national security adviser to prime minister Ariel Sharon (2002-2003) and ambassador to the EU (1996-1998). He is currently head of the Shasha Center for Strategic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.