At odds with Washington

The question of Hamas goes to the root of whether the Palestinian leadership is truly prepared to reconcile itself to the fact of Jewish sovereign rights in the Middle East.

Obama Netanyahu 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Obama Netanyahu 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In sharp contrast to his 2009 Cairo speech, President Barack Obama made it abundantly clear during his speech in Washington on Thursday precisely who the good guys are and who the bad guys are in the Muslim world.
The good guys are Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor who sparked a revolution that brought down president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali by setting himself on fire; Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google executive involved in the Tahrir Square protests that doomed president Hosni Mubarak; and the millions of others in Syria, Bahrain, Iran and elsewhere demanding basic human rights, economic opportunity and freedom of expression.
Obama also identified the bad guys. Basher Assad is a bad guy who has chosen to answer his own people’s cries for reform with brutal murders and imprisonment. Obama’s message to Assad was to either help with the reforms or move out of the way. Yet after witnessing Assad’s military forces mow down peaceful protesters with tanks and artillery in Homs, Deraa, Baniyas and other Syrian cities for several weeks now, Obama said nothing that modified the stance presented at the end of April by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, that there was no room for direct US intervention in Syria. Nor was it clear why the rationale behind interfering in Libya – the prevention of the massacre of thousands – did not apply to the Syrian scenario.
Obama also spoke out strongly against Bahrain’s brutal crackdown against the Shi’ite opposition, and against Iran’s repression of its citizens and its “illicit nuclear program.” But in neither case did he elucidate any concrete steps he felt the US should take against these regimes. Nor did he say how he would help strengthen opposition movements there.
His disinclination in 2009 to extend aid to brave Iranian activists who were behind that year’s Green Revolution is a painful reminder of the administration’s failure to take action at critical moments. Judging from the US’s ongoing reaction to Syria, it is not entirely clear whether that lesson has been learned.
THE US president was a great deal more specific on his vision for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. He made it clear that his country would not cooperate with the Palestinian push for a UN General Assembly declaration recognizing a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 lines – a predictable US position but still a partial relief. Negotiation with Israel, not UN recognition, is the only route to Palestinian statehood, Obama said, reflecting consistent US policy.
However, while there were no signs that he was threatening or pressuring Israel, Obama did say that a two-state solution should be based on the 1967 lines, a clear endorsement of Palestinian demands, and terminology that for many Israelis will bring fears of escalating pressure to return to positions similar to those from which a vulnerable Israel was repeatedly attacked between 1948 and 1967. He mentioned “land swaps” but, as in the past, was silent on the issue of an Israeli right to maintain the settlement blocs, in stark contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush, who endorsed such territorial adjustments in a letter to Ariel Sharon.
Obama also dissented outright with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s reading of the geopolitical map, claiming that the Arab Spring offered a unique opportunity to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In contrast, Netanyahu has presented what is in our opinion a more sober, realistic assessment of the situation. The instability running rampant in the region illustrates how easily regimes, including a newly founded Palestinian state, can suddenly be toppled and potentially taken over by Islamic extremists like Hamas.
Problematic, too, was Obama’s declaration that the sides should relaunch talks focusing initially on borders and security, leaving the “emotional” issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees for later. Israel’s position has long been that such an order of business could enable the Palestinians to “pocket” the Israeli territorial concessions involved in border agreements without withdrawing their demand for a “right of return” for millions of Palestinians – which is the destruction of the Jewish state by demographic means. Disturbingly, he did not specify that the Palestinian refugee problem must be solved within a new “Palestine,” not in Israel.
A positive point in Obama’s speech was his recognition of the “bad guy” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He wondered how Israel was to conduct negotiations with a Palestinian leadership that included Hamas in its national unity government, as long as the terrorist organization was bent on Israel’s destruction. Strikingly, however, he did not reiterate the imperative for Hamas to recognize Israel and abandon terrorism as a precondition for such talks. Here, of all untenable places, he was vague, declaring only that “In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.”
It’s that question that goes to the root of whether the Palestinian leadership is truly prepared to reconcile itself to the fact of Jewish sovereign rights in the Middle East. And it is the differing assessments of Obama and Netanyahu on that most central of issues that explains why the president’s speech was received so coldly by the prime minister as he set out for what now seems certain to be a highly troubling visit to Washington.