No Smooth Sailing for Obama

By George S. Hishmeh

Whatever one may think of Barack Hussein Obama’s speech in Cairo last week, no doubt it was historic and unprecedented for an American president who, by any measure, was eloquent, charismatic and sounded genuinely eager for a new beginning with the Arab and Muslim worlds.

His hour-long remarks, beamed across the world, were cheered more than 30 times from a mixed audience at Cairo University, co-sponsor with the over 1,000-year-old Al Azhar University, of this rare event. A member of the large audience stood up at one point and yelled out loudly, “we love you, Barrack Obama!” – a far cry from the treatment that his predecessor, George W. Bush, received in Baghdad where an Iraqi journalist tossed his shoes at the visiting American leader.

The State Department seemed elated with the unexpected warm reaction, carrying on its much-visited website several laudatory press commentaries from various capitals of Arab and Islamic countries.

These were a sharp contrast to the treatment of past US policies, especially during the Bush administration, which had been severely criticized, especially over Iraq. Even Obama joined the chorus, describing the US-led invasion as “a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world”.

Obama may have had a point when he acknowledged that “no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust” or that he could not answer that afternoon in Cairo “all the complex questions that brought us to this point”. But he, for example, ought to have recalled some abominable Israeli actions, as when, 42 years ago this week, 34 US sailors were killed and 174 others wounded aboard the USS Liberty, a spy ship, when it was attacked off the coast of Egypt during the 1967 Middle East war.

Another dastardly Israeli action was recalled with the recent death announcement of Yehoshua Zettler, the Israeli officer who “planned and supervised” the assassination in Jerusalem of the UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte, on September 17, 1948. Zettler also had a role in the massacre at the village of Deir Yassin, just outside Jerusalem, in which over 100 unarmed Palestinians were murdered by his Stern gang and by members of the Irgun gang, led by Menachem Begin, who much later became prime minister of Israel.

Nevertheless, the Middle East ball started rolling this week, as evidenced in the immediate visit of US special envoy George J. Mitchell to Israel in an obvious attempt to pressure the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu to abide by Obama’s demand that he curtail any expansion of Israeli settlements, including “natural growth”.

The word is out that the Obama administration wants immediate talks between Palestinians and Israelis, but obviously none of this may happen before Israel reveals its intentions, which remain unclear.

Israeli leaders have yet to declare their borders, something they have never done since the founding of Israel in 1948, probably because they had hoped to expand their territory, as is now the case.

More striking has been the failure of Israel to have a constitution where all citizens, Jewish or otherwise, are guaranteed equal rights. Palestinian Arabs in Israel are, to this day, denied the right to live in all-Jewish towns or villages.

Netanyahu has now promised to reveal in a major address next Sunday his government’s “principles for achieving peace and security”, but whether he will recommit Israel to the two-state solution, as outlined in the roadmap signed in 2003, remains to be seen.

A key point which has confounded the Netanyahu government in Obama’s statements, here and overseas, and which has been repeatedly stressed by his top aides, is that a two-state solution is in the interests of all including the US.

“I intend to personally pursue this outcome,” he told his Cairo audience, “with all the patience and dedication that the task requires”.

In other words, the Israelis, whoever is in office, no longer have a monopoly on US Middle East policies. Obama’s two top aides are Jews – David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel – and several Jewish congressmen support his stance, much to Netanyahu’s bewilderment, as he experienced when he was here recently.

This does not mean that it will be all smooth sailing, especially that the Arab side is getting impatient with Israel’s foot dragging, but one remains hopeful that a solution can be reached within two years.

What must be troublesome for all is the continued division among the Palestinians. Here, Obama, who has shown remarkable sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians in his Cairo remarks, may be the only one to find a way to drag Hamas into the equation.

– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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