Provocative Shortcomings of Obama’s Speech in Cairo

By Jerry Levin

President Obama’s address to the Muslim world certainly moved a significant distance down a confidence building road with Islamic States but it was not far enough. Not by a long shot.

With respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict, he failed his historic opportunity to clarify the most pressing issue needing to be resolved before mutual security, stability, and justice can be established in the region. Instead of ingenuously assailing publicly one of the most fundamental causes of the mutual enmity, he continued to avoid that opportunity by disingenuously mouthing critical platitudes, which, though truthful, were designed to continue to obscure the truths standing in the way of a genuine wholly liberating peace agreement.

Here’s what I mean.

It was encouraging for the President to declare that “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” because the “construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. [So] It is time for these settlements to stop.” However that supposedly bold assertion offered no incentive to actually stop them.

It was also encouraging to hear him say “it is undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland, [and] they endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. [So] America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” But sadly again there was nothing new in what he said, except that he actually did utter the word “occupation” publicly for the first time. Nevertheless, true to form for American Presidents he said nothing about when and especially how America, after it did turn around, would finally face up to its responsibilities as an honest broker.

I also agreed with the President when he warned that “Hamas must put an end to violence.” But it was deceitfully deceptive of him to generalize Hamas instead of making some significant organizational distinctions. It would have been far more accurate for him to have said that he recognized that there is a nonviolent political wing of Hamas whose aims are much like Sien Fein’s were in Northern Ireland. And it would have been important for him to have candidly admitted that it was a mistake for the United States to have enabled the undemocratic return of political power to the Palestine Authority after it had lost it to Hamas in transparent free elections. Having done that, it would have been entirely appropriate to warn the violent militant wing of Hamas, which is much like the violent Provisional Irish Republican Army before it disarmed, to put an end to its violence.

Finally the most significant shortcoming of the speech was his failure to assert that the occupation and its accompanying violence is only the tip, the visible one tenth of a troubling iceberg. The other never officially remarked nine tenths is inside Israel not the West Bank or Gaza. To make a difference he should have explained that we must begin to concentrate on melting the nine tenths below the surface, because if we don’t we will never get rid of the tip.

What I mean is this. It was encouraging to hear the President say that he has “an unyielding belief that all people yearn for the ability to speak their minds and have a say in how they are governed; need to have confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as they choose.” But he should have made clear that he was not just directing those remarks at Islamic nations where vigorous robust democracy is lacking. He should also have made it even clearer that he had been directing them at the State of Israel too. That would have been candor for a President of historic dimensions.

The President knows very well that Christian and Muslims living inside Israel do not enjoy the same rights, privileges and individual freedoms that its Jews do. There is no way that an informed official, such as he, does not know that Jewish nationality counts for more with respect to collective human and civil right rights and also individual dignity than it does for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. He certainly must know that Jewish nationality, favoritism and cronyism is dooming non-Jews to unending second class citizenship.

Also he would have to be sound asleep not to know that Apartheid is alive and well not just in the West Bank and Gaza but also in Israel. For example, the Jewish State’s non-Jews are not eligible for equal distribution of public funds for such vital social programs as education and health; for the freedom to build a home anywhere outside  Arab villages and towns without being forbidden to do that, or even when it comes to building on to an existing residence without having to worry about its being demolished, or also – for those living in East Jerusalem – the freedom from having one’s home demolished simply because it stands in the way of the expansion of Jewish neighborhoods. “

Finally in view of those irrefutable facts, he surely is not being fooled by Apartheid apologists who assert that Israel is a humane and the only true democracy in the Middle East. For that reason we can at least be mollified by the knowledge that so far he has not been conned into supporting the current Prime Minister’s demand to recognize the Jewish State of Israel’s right to exist. He seems to understand as did progressive West Bank Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouthi who explained recently in the Los Angeles Times that “Palestinians in the occupied territories have no standing to sign away the rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel in order to get Israel to the negotiating table. To tell the truth,” Dr. Barghouthi continued, “we don’t believe that Israel is a true democracy and an exclusivist state at the same time.”

So it would have been more to the point if the President had warned Israel to start living up to the human and civil rights needs of its non-Jewish citizens with deliberate speed. To the credit of many Israeli Jews and Jews elsewhere in the world, but not enough, they have gone further than President Obama’s warning by making it a demand. These Jews understand very well that the government of the Jewish State has no right to deny Israel’s non-Jewish citizens the rights that were intended to be assigned equally to Jews and non-Jews by the United Nations in its fateful 1947 resolution, the one which enabled the creation of a Jewish State. The rights were clearly stated in the UN’s directive to establish constitutional rights guaranteeing “all persons of equal and nondiscriminatory rights in civil, political, economic and religious matters and the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms including freedom of religion, language, speech and publication, education, assembly and association.”

These Jews, as the President  should too, are calling on their government to live up to the formal assent it gave to the UN’s directives back in 1948 in the formal Declaration that announced the nation’s establishment. The Declaration proclaimed that the Jewish State “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex. It will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” However, as we all know, from the minute the Declaration went into effect, the Jewish State has been trampling on the rights of its non-Jewish citizens that its founders had pledged in the Declaration. The government has been doing that by simply never getting around to making good on its promise to produce a Constitution that guarantees those rights.

In view of the omissions concerning the disgraceful discriminatory treatment of Israel’s Christian and Muslims citizens, it does not seem likely that the President is willing to encourage the kind of political change in Israel needed to end its current leaders’ continued defiance of its founders’ promises.

So the goal is clear, we must urge the President to publicly recognize and call for the elimination of Jewish social and political supremacy inside Israel. He must do that because that is how a new and genuine peace process must start that would lead to either two truly democratic states side by side or just one, if that is what is eventually agreed to. Without such a beginning Israel is not likely to produce enough enlightened leaders of goodwill or even common sense who would be willing to share the blessings of real democracy on behalf of all inhabitants of the region. If there were such a change, the constructive influence that could result could go far in defusing the long running regional hostility and set an example that could in turn encourage leadership in the Palestinian State to adopt a democratic paradigm similar to the one that had already been established in a truly reformed democratic Israel.

However, there is nothing that the President said in his Cairo speech that can lead one to think that he would in one way or another support an effort to begin at the real needed beginning for ending the hostility between the Jewish State and Palestine. If he does secretly harbor such a policy inclination, his speech indicated that he still is captive in the U. S. to the Jewish and Christian right, no matter how much they may greedily assail what he said..

Essentially the President made a campaign speech with something in it for Muslims everywhere, except perhaps Iran. What he said about nuclear energy and Palestine and Israel was especially designed to thrill the hearts and minds of Arab men and women in the street but not enough to rattle the cage their authoritarian rulers keep them in.

The same was true for Israel: tougher words but not tough enough. He said nothing that would indicate he would shape policies to help influence the dismantling of the discriminatory status quo laws inside the Jewish State that could set the stage for genuine negotiations to end the oppressive conditions its army is imposing on Gaza and in the West Bank. At this moment, it is folly to conclude from the Cairo speech that the Obama administration will be pursuing diplomacy on behalf of anything more than a viable one and a three quarters state (Israel) to a nonviable one quarter state solution (Palestine) with no guarantees of nonexclusive democracy in either.

– Jerry Levin is a former CNN Middle East reporter, who was kidnapped and held hostage by Hezbollah in 1984. He escaped after eleven and a half months in captivity due to the nonviolent behind the scene efforts of friends and colleagues organized by his wife, Sis Levin. The group included Muslim, Christian, and Jewish friends and colleagues in the U.S. and the Middle East. Since then he has been working for the absolute release of non Jews in the region from every aspect of Israeli domination, control, expropriation, and genocidal violence. Over the years he has worked with several violence reduction organizations in the West Bank (including CPT – Christian Peacemaker Teams) and Gaza, and with nonviolent peace and nonviolent justice organizations in the U.S. In April at a ceremony in San Francisco he and his were recognized by the Dali Lama as one of 2009’s “Unsung Heroes of Compassion”. He contributed this article to

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