Before an audience of three thousands last night, President Barack Obama made his biggest homily yet in his quest to push the Arab/Israeli conflict forward. Obama brought with him a baggage full of previous American Administration misdeeds—outright hypocrisy, lies and blatant disregards toward the plight of the Palestinians—and hinted that he is embarking upon a new course in US foreign policy in the region while promising that he will uphold his commitment to bringing the two sides of the Middle-Eastern conflict to a satisfactorily political rapprochement. He began by offering the Arab world the audacity to hope for peace in a region where deep-seated animosity towards the United States is an open secret. Obama admitted that “no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust,” but he reaffirmed his devotion to keeping his promise in being an honest broker where previous administration reneged.
Speaking from the lectern in an ornate hall at Cairo University in a speech also sponsored by al-Azhar, one of the oldest centers of Islamic learning, Obama issued an ambitious seven-point manifesto for bridging the gap between the United States and the Islamic world. Trying to maintain a geostrategic balance for the United States, many experts agree, will never be realized as long as Israeli militarism is not curtailed or contained, or a genuine peace is achieved—a peace that will require Israel to relinquish Arab lands it seized in 1967 and in 1971. Obama seems to be working on a thin blue line. He may find it difficult to back his words with deeds, unless he is able to forestall Israeli belligerence, especially with regards to the occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Having been acutely aware of this fact, ahead of his historic speech in Cairo and in a move designed to project a sharp break with the U.S. foreign policy ante, the popular US president publicly opened a new rift last month with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by publicly demanding that he stop building settlements on the West Bank. The vexing issue of grabbing Palestinian lands in order to create facts on the ground and to make it much more difficult to achieve peace has always the cornerstone of Israeli politics.
Steven R. Hurst, who reports from the White House and who has covered international relations for 30 years, suggests that in the event Netanyahu is hunkering down to block US initiative like Ariel Sharon did 8 years ago, this would leave him in an open quarrel with Washington “and in a position that could shorten his tenure at the top of the Jewish state’s government.” Whether Hurst’s assertion is prophesized, it remains to be seen. One thing is certain: besides the vast conundrums of issues clouding American relations with the Muslim world, no other issue causes more soreness than that of Washington historical ties to the Jewish state and the massive support it provides Israel right in the face of the Arab world.
In walking that line, Obama claims that U.S.-Israeli bond was “well-known” and “unbreakable,” but that Washington “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” And Obama’s insistence on a “fair” deal with the Palestinians seems to have forced Netanyahu to launch his own public relation stunt. Yesterday, before an army of journalists, the Israeli army rolled its bulldozers on a Jewish community of squatters in the West Bank. What was being demolished, however, was nothing other than a few huts. Few believed Netanyahu’s sleazy move.
According to many observers last night, “Obama’s approach was sweeping and evenhanded throughout the speech.” The son of a Muslim man, Obama’s ascendance to power has ushered a never-seen-before hope in the mind of millions of Muslims. That is why many experts believe that part of Barack Obama’s legacy will be to achieve an honest rapprochement between Muslims and Jews. One can easily understand why he is urging such willingness on all sides to make difficult and politically dangerous sacrifices “to reach a goal that has eluded the world for six decades.”
But this quest for peace will certainly be falling on deaf ears. It is hard to talk peace when the United States is currently involved in two wars against two Muslim countries: Iraq and Afghanistan. Those wars and U.S. policy toward Israel have produced a growing belief in the Muslim world that the United States is at war with Islam, although last January in a speech in Ankara, Turkey, Obama was forced to state that “America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam.” And he went on to restate his earlier plans to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011 and declared U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan as soon as it believes the area is no longer a safe haven for Al Qaida.
Behind the multitude of problems facing the United States in its “desire” to bridge the gap with the Muslim world, nothing will do it if Israel continues to maintain its grip over Gaza, West Bank and the Golan Heights. “It is easy to point fingers,” the president said. “But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.”
So the world waits, for overcoming six decades of entrenched hatred and bloodshed will not come at the dawn or in the aftermath of an historic speech.