U.S. President Barack Obama gave two speeches on Thursday, March 21, one to Arab Palestinians in a joint press conference with acting head of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, and the other to Israelis at the Jerusalem Convention Center.
His talks were ostensibly about the state of relations between the different parties, but everyone knew that the animating impulse was to kickstart the “Middle East Peace Process.” Everyone who watched the speeches or read the transcripts, are now desperately looking at the tea leaves to see what just happened.
The substance of Obama’s two speeches, the venues in which they were given, the words chosen, the words avoided, taken all together paint a vivid picture of this president and his beliefs about the region.
One speech he gave in Ramallah, the acknowledged seat of government of the Palestinian Authority, where he gave a joint press conference with Mahmoud Abbas, the acting leader of the PA. The other he gave in Jerusalem, not at the seat of Israel’s government, and not directed to Israel’s elected leaders.
At the Jerusalem speech the U.S. president spoke directly to the citizenry of Israel, mostly university students – minus those, such as students at a newly credentialed Israeli university located in Ariel – which is situated beyond the “green line” and, apparently, for Obama is beyond the Pale, ironic given the large number of Arabs who are students at that university.
The speeches revealed little that is new: Obama believes there should be two states on the land, one, the Jewish homeland, Israel, and the other, a new one for Arab Palestinians, called Palestine. He criticized Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist entities, praised what he said was the Palestinian Authority’s transparency, institution-building and security services, and lauded Israeli ingenuity.
“Only in Israel could you see the Dead Sea Scrolls and the place where the technology on board the Mars Rover originated,” Obama told the audience in Jerusalem.
But there were clear indications of what Obama believes, and what he wants to have happen between Israel and the Arab Palestinians.
He believes that the Arab Palestinians, like all “oppressed” people, are yearning for freedom which, when granted, will quell their hatred for their oppressors. He certainly sees their plight as akin to that of African Americans before the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery. And he links the idea of slavery and second status-hood of African Americans with Arab Palestinians.
And those of us in the United States understand that change takes time but it is also possible, because there was a time when my daughters could not expect to have the same opportunities in their own country as somebody else’s daughters.
Obama talked about the Jewish people who were slaves in Egypt, and who had suffered pogroms and genocide and their freedom, expressed in Zionism.
“The idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own,” Obama said, and that once the Jews achieved that, they should know that “responsibility does not end when you reach the promised land, it only begins.” Suggesting, not too subtly, that it is the responsibility of Israelis to enable Arab Palestinians to enjoy their freedom in their own homeland.
Appealing directly to the Israeli people, the U.S. president said
The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.
In other words, Obama believes virtually every one of the points of the false narrative that have been spun since Arafat was brought back from Tunisia: the Arab Palestinians are the sole native people, Israeli “settlers” commit violence and that violence goes unpunished, Arab Palestinian farmers are prevented from farming “their” land, the movements of Arab Paelstinians are restricted for no reason other than Israeli arrogance and greed, Arab Palestinians have been unfairly expelled from their land and they live under a state of Occupation in their own land, and, ultimately and completely, the land belongs, always belonged and must belong to the Arab Palestinians.
When in Ramallah, the U.S. president did not mention any responsibilities for peace owed by his listeners. Instead, he talked about the recent release of U.S. funds “to help the Palestinian Authority bolster its finances.” The only discussion of terrorism when speaking in Ramallah was directed at Hamas. As recently as last month, however, a PA terror group claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Israel from Gaza.
Just as the U.S. president told the Israelis that the Arabs deserve their own state and that it is the responsibility of Israelis to give it to them, he made the same points to the Arab Palestinian audience gathered in Ramallah.
The Palestinian people deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it. Palestinians deserve to move and travel freely, and to feel secure in their communities. Like people everywhere, Palestinians deserve a future of hope — that their rights will be respected, that tomorrow will be better than today and that they can give their children a life of dignity and opportunity. Put simply, the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own.
When in Jerusalem, Obama talked about Hizbollah and the Assad regime, and also Iran, as contributing to Israel’s security issues, but nothing about the constant terror attempts by those under the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority, including the Al Aksa Martyrs’ Brigade, which is responsible for more terrorist attacks than any other Arab Palestinian terrorist group.
Obama proclaimed in Ramallah that the U.S. seeks “an independent, a viable and a contiguous Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people.” To the Jewish crowd in Jerusalem, he said the same thing except he left out the word “contiguous.”
And the U.S. president congratulated the PA on its achievements of which he and the U.S. , “as its single largest donor of assistance” is so proud: increased transparency, efficiency, stronger and more professional security forces, and institution building.
JEWISH HOMES, ARAB ROCKETS, BOTH ‘IRRITANTS’
Obama acknowledged that there are disagreements between the two sides – he referred to them as “irritants”: the “Israelis have concerns about rockets flying into their cities at night,” and for the Arab Palestinians it is “the continued settlement activity in the West Bank area.” But, he said,
My argument is even though both sides may have areas of strong disagreement, may be engaging in activities that the other side considers to be a breach of good faith, we have to push through those things to try to get to an agreement — because if we get an agreement then it will be very clear what the nature of that agreement is: there will be a sovereign Palestinian state, a sovereign Jewish state of Israel.
While side-stepping the Arab insistent focus on the problem of settlement building – and this is what gave rise to furious responses in the Arab media – Obama described the core goal in this way: “How do we get sovereignty for the Palestinian people, and how do we assure security for the Israeli people?”
He wants a “broad-based agreement that assures the Palestinians that they have a state, and you have a comprehensive approach that ensures Israel the kind of security they need.”
Apparently the new buzz words will be “sovereignty” and “security.”
The problem, of course, with Obama’s vision is that determining boundaries is a fixed decision – the land doesn’t move, there can’t be any change, while a promise, a commitment, even a sworn statement guaranteeing peace is permeable and depends on the commitment of millions of people – many of whom have rather poor track records – to honor it.
And just in case anyone hoped to pretend that the PA understands negotiations happen when both sides to a conflict agree to make substantial compromises in order to achieve a mutually satisfactory goal, that delusion was put to rest. When Mahmoud Abbas introduced President Obama to the gathered crowd in Ramallah, he spoke briefly but made clear what his intentions are, have been, and will always be.
Abbas stated that his people have suffered from “the calamities of the Nakba (the re-birth of Israel),” that the land has belonged to the Arab Palestinian people” since ancient times,” Jerusalem “the Lady of the Cities” must be the capital of the “independent state of Palestine,” that peace cannot come so long as there are “walls, settlements, arrests, denial of refugee rights,” and that the Arab Palestinian people fully intend to join forces with Hamas, thereby “ending the division [to] achieve the Palestinian reconciliation.”
There was one new hopeful development that the U.S. president hoped to see replicated. When Obama spoke to the audience in Jerusalem, he revealed that he envisions the future state of Palestine to mirror the current state of Israel in terms of being an open society, committed to education, entrepreneurship, one that is opposed to corruption and is a hub for regional trade:
One of the great ironies of what is happening in the broader region is that so much of what people are yearning for – education and entrepreneurship; the ability to start a business without paying a bride, to connect to the global economy – those things can be found in Israel.
Obama described a program run by a U.S. company, Cisco, in Jeruslaem, where “young Arab engineers and Palestinian engineers” are hired because they are so well qualified, so talented. He went on to share his fantasy – and it is a fantasy – of such a program taking place in “Palestine”:
Well, imagine if you have a strong, independent state that’s peaceful — and all that talent that currently is being untapped that could be creating jobs and businesses and prosperity throughout this area.
Perhaps people have difficulty imaging that is because everyone in the Middle East knows it is not going to happen. There will be no Jews working in those programs alongside the “well qualified, so talented” Arab Palestinian engineers in “Palestine,” because no Jew will be allowed in the state that he and so many westerners are trying so desperately hard to help create.
So “two states for two people” is likely to be replaced with “sovereignty and security,” the west will continue pretending that: the PA is a non-terrorist political group deserving of continuing U.S. aid, the Israeli government is intransigent and unwilling to make concessions, and it is Israel which bears all responsibility for ensuring that a Palestinian state – created in its own image – comes into existence as soon as possible.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the U.S. correspondent for The Jewish Press. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools. You can reach her by email: Lori@JewishPressOnline.com
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