Peace or Endless “Peace Process”? Obama’s Empty Middle East Speech

Posted May 20, 2011

IT SHOULD COME as no real surprise that president Obama’s May 19 speech on the Middle East said so little. Nor is it unexpected that the major media played it as if it were a major event. There are two sets of observations to be made on the president’s remarks, first on the Arab Uprising as a whole and second on the Israel-Palestine crisis.

Back in June 2009, president Obama’s address in Cairo to the Muslim world stimulated genuine public excitement from North Africa to South Asia. Two years later, there’s little indication that most ordinary Arabs or Muslims – aside from diplomatic, policy or business elites with a professional or direct economic interest – are paying very much attention.

People in Tunisia and Egypt know that their pro-American dictators enjoyed U.S. backing until days before popular uprisings forced the military to push them out. In Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, no one really expects the U.S. president’s proclamation that “(t)here must be no doubt that the United States welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity” will affect their lives or their struggles for democracy in any real way.

For one thing, the plain record of this and previous administrations raises plenty of “doubt” that the United States “welcomes change that advances self-determination” in that part of the world. For another, the United States notably reserves its strongest rhetoric for the repressive violence of regimes where it has no capacity to influence events – especially Syria and Iran – while passing very lightly over those where it has some serious clout, like Bahrain, and saying nothing at all about Saudi Arabia which sent troops into Bahrain to enable the brutal anti-democratic crackdown there.

The apparent partial exception to this pattern is Libya, where the popular uprising against the hideous Qaddafi regime has lifted the siege of Misurata and is making limited progress with the assistance of NATO air cover and probably with covert logistical ground support. At the same time, it’s increasingly clear that the anti-Qaddafi rebels will receive very little in the way of weapons to wage their own struggle – rather, the imperialist intention is to “take out” the dictator either with an air strike or by encouraging an internal coup, in either case to ensure that the post-Qaddafi regime is reliably pro-western and suitably grateful to its deliverers.

In short, to understand whatever substance Obama’s speech had, it’s necessary to recognize the subtext that the president could not state openly: The region is changing in ways that the United States did not seek but cannot halt or control. Once U.S. policy could no longer save the region’s “stability” based on longstanding friendly dictatorships, it must seek to preserve this “stability” through carefully managed elite-controlled political transitions. The hoped-for ultimate result will be regimes with at least some democratic legitimacy, based on elections to be dominated by parties with neoliberal economic agendas, and especially committed to maintaining the free flow of oil regardless of the needs of the peoples of these countries.

The Arab world uprisings have torn an enormous hole in the decades-old fabric of U.S. domination of the Middle East, and president Obama’s response seeks to maintain at least some relevance – since control isn’t really an option – of the new political dispensation. But the acid test has to be what the United States does in the area where it does have real and substantial power, if it has the guts to pursue it. Does president Barack Obama’s “leadership strength” extend from sending Navy Seals to assassinate Osama bin Laden, and dropping bombs from drones over Pakistan, Yemen and wherever else we don’t yet know about, to taking on its own junior partner state of Israel?

There are no reasons to think so, and several to think not. First, on the crucial issue of Israeli settlements – all of which are illegal in international law — the Obama administration already wimped out when it previously demanded a halt to settlement construction and prime minister Netanyahu laughed in its face. The president’s May 19 speech did not even reiterate this demand, simply noting that “Israeli settlement activity continues” – quite an understatement given that Israel chose that very day to announce 650 new housing units to be built in the settlements.

As for the annexation-apartheid Wall, you’d think from Obama’s speech that it never existed. Nor would you know that Israeli troops shot down refugees protesting at its borders on the anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe), May 15.

Second, the Obama speech falsified the Palestinians’ position: “Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.” But the Palestinian position, as well as that of the Arab League and for that matter the Islamic Conference, offers precisely that – full recognition of Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and Israeli recognition of Palestine – and in any case, mutual recognition is a matter between states. (A Palestinian state can be required in international law to recognize Israel; no such demand can decently be made of a stateless people, least of all to recognize the state that dispossessed them.)

Third, the speech disrespected the Palestinian people’s greatest achievement so far during the Arab uprising, the initiative to overcome the bloody factional warfare between Fatah and Hamas and the move towards a national unity government in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Far from apologizing for the considerable U.S. role in fomenting this brutal internecine conflict in the first place, Obama’s speech intoned that “Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection.” This not only ignores Hamas’s stated acceptance of any negotiated peace agreement that’s ratified by a Palestinian popular referendum – even worse, it rejects the Palestinian people’s right to choose their own leaders, and legitimizes Israel’s rejectionist refusal to negotiate with a Palestinian unity government.

Fourth, the president lectured that “(s)ymbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.” The so-called “symbolic action” in question is the Palestinian Authority’s stated intention to seek UN approval for a Palestinian declaration of statehood – which will, if carried through, “isolate” not so much Israel (which is increasingly isolated by its own conduct) but rather the United States, which will be exposed as the fundamental remaining obstacle to Palestinian self-determination.

Fifth and perhaps worst in the long run, president Obama – knowingly or not – stumbled into official U.S. ratification of an apartheid-type “solution” when he stated the formula that “a lasting peace will involve…Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people…” The poison pill here is the “Jewish state,” which in theory and especially in Zionist practice means not just “the homeland” (which in itself is not inherently exclusive) but state institutions of Jewish supremacy and special privilege both in law and in fact.

This formula is quite clearly intended by the Israeli leadership to legitimize not only the ethnic cleansing that accompanied the state’s founding, but potentially the future removal of non-Jewish Israelis – currently 20% or more of its citizens — through expulsion or “land exchange,” if deemed necessary “to preserve the Jewish and democratic character of the Jewish state.” It is also very deliberately intended to make it impossible for any Palestinian leadership to reach a peace agreement with Israel without destroying its own democratic legitimacy. Israel demands nothing short of 100% unconditional Palestinian surrender, which even the most conservative and accommodating Palestinian leadership cannot give.

Finally, as if to render the whole exercise meaningless, president Obama proposed “moving forward now on the basis of territory and security” while leaving for later the “two wrenching and emotional issues” of “the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.” For over twenty years now, leaving Jerusalem and the refugees till last has been the tried, true and proven method to ensure that the wretched “peace process” lasts forever and peace never comes. And so it will be now.

There are certainly points in president Obama’s speech that the rightwing Israeli government won’t like, especially the shocking(!) stipulation that peace should be based on the pre-1967 borders, as if there were any other reasonable options. But Israel will simply reject those, with the full-throated backing of the Israel Lobby and the Bible-thumping Christian right. If U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine is ever to change in a meaningful sense, it will only happen when the United States itself is profoundly “isolated” in world politics and public opinion. The sooner, the better.