Obama’s Comments in Cairo on Palestine, One Year On

Palestinian youth flee tear-gas fired by the IDF, Bil'in, January 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech—given by official sources the rather absurd title “A New Beginning”—was at the time of its presentation decidedly unjustifiably hailed by many hegemonic commentators as marking the birth of productive changes in relations between the U.S. and Arab and Islamic peoples; its reception in this sense mirrors much of the dominant reaction to the November 2008 election of Obama to the U.S. presidency. One year later—following Obama’s caving-in on Israeli settlement-expansion in East Jerusalem, his dismissal of the UN Goldstone Report on Israeli war crimes vis-à-vis Gaza, his silence on Israel’s assassination of a Hamas official in Dubai, and the marked lack of condemnation he has made of the recent Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla convoy to the Gaza Strip—disappointment with Obama’s take on Israel and Palestine is widespread among people of conscience, just as is disillusionment with his administration’s regressive policies more generally. If we are to examine the comments he made in Cairo last June, however, we find little more than mystificatory platitudes that largely legitimize the power relations that currently prevail in historical Palestine; that the seventeen months during which Obama has held power have seen little to no progress that could justify hope for a more livable and humane future for Palestine should, then, be entirely unsurprising.

Obama begins his comments on the question of Palestine in his Cairo speech by firmly asserting that the “bond” between the U.S. and Israel is “unbreakable.” Claiming this tie to be “based upon cultural and historical ties,” he fails explicitly to specify the rather disagreeable nature of this relationship—that is, that it has been the U.S. government that has largely bankrolled Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians, both historically and contemporarily. Unsurprisingly, he says nothing about the courageous counter-hegemonic efforts of several prominent U.S.-based critics of Israel—Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Judith Butler, and Joel Kovel come to mind—who have long worked to oveturn U.S. support for Israeli apartheid and colonialism. Instead, he goes on to explain that the U.S.-Israel relationship is “rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied,” one that he seems to claim to have justified the historical establishment of the Israeli state in what was before 1948 the home of more than a million Palestinian Arabs. No explicit mention, of course, is made by Obama of the “tragic history” of the Nakba, the Deir Yassin massacre, or of the various other massacres of Palestinians overseen by Israel since its founding—Qana, Sabra and Shatila, Jenin, Gaza.

Taken as a whole, however, Obama’s speech is not at first glance the obvious product of Zionist apologists. He claims it to be “undeniable” that the Palestinian people have “suffered in pursuit of a homeland” for over sixty years, and mentions with some sympathy the “[m]any” Palestinians who still reside in various refugee camps, awaiting the realization of a “life of peace and security” that has long been denied them. Typical, however, of a mainstream politician who in 2007 claimed there to be “nothing false about hope” in the course of U.S. history, he here says not a word about the U.S. and Israel’s long-standing complicity in the very negation of the dreams of the Palestinian people for freedom and justice, and he of course does not apologize for such—this, despite his observations regarding the “daily humiliations” endured by the Palestinians as a result of military occupation, and his rather strong assertion that the “situation for the Palestinian people” is “intolerable.” He closes this part of his comments by claiming that the U.S. will not proverbially turn its back on the “legitimate” Palestinian aspiration for “dignity,” “opportunity,” and an independent state. The U.S.’s historical role with regard to the question of Palestine—which, as the Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali captured quite expressively in his creation of Handala, has been precisely to turn its back on the Palestinian people and deny the realization of their aspirations—is here again omitted by Obama.

One of the seeming preconditions for the achievement of Obama’s dreams for the region—that is, the two-state solution—is that Palestinians “abandon violence,” for violent resistance, we are told, is “wrong” and “does not succeed.” One must wonder if Obama intends this as an absolute statement, or one that applies only to the situation of the disposesssed Palestinians who, largely defenseless, face one of the most powerful war machines of the contemporary world—one that would conceivably have been less successful in advancing its settler-colonialist project without the not insignificant amount of aid, both military and otherwise, given to Israel by the U.S. for many years. It would indeed seem outright Kafka-esque for the commander in chief of the largest military in the world to be calling on others to abandon violence for both moral and practical reasons, especially in light of Obama’s expressed future vision for Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan, together with the reactionary actions he has endorsed in these regions. More generally, however, his claim here, if taken as an absolute one, is a rather strange one: was the United States, the country of which he is the current president, itself not forged through violence? Can Obama seriously hold that the violence historically employed against the Nazis and their collaborators, for example, was wrong and impractical? Would he express similar denunciations of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance or the Bielski partisans, or of those Jews who attempted to overthrow their executioners at the Treblinka and Sobibor extermination camps? Are the Haitian and Cuban revolutions to be dismissed because they were won through violence? Is all violence to be found illegitimate, regardless of the goal sought by such?

Unsurprisingly, Obama does not concern himself with such questions. He speaks of Palestinians’ “shoot[ing] rockets at sleeping children” and of the “blow[ing] up” of “old women on a bus,” actions that he quite rightly finds morally abhorrent. He nonetheless mentions nothing of the far more devastating violence that has been visited on the Palestinian people for more than sixty years by Israel, and the U.S. government behind it; there is not a word in his entire comments regarding the barbarous assault by the Israeli military on Gaza that left over 1400 dead, 5000 injured, and 100,000 homeless in December 2008 and January 2009, nor anything about Israel’s 2006 war on southern Lebanon that killed nearly 1200 and injured 4400 Lebanese civilians, an attack for which Obama, then a senator preparing for his future presidential campaign, refused to endorse a cease-fire.

Following his admonition against subaltern violence, Obama goes on to tell the Palestinians that they should “focus on what they can build.” The arrogance of such an assertion is astounding, given that it was with U.S. weapons that Israel destroyed a year and a half ago, just as generally it has been with U.S. arms and essentially unconditional political support that Israel has prosecuted its project of domination over the Palestinians these past sixty years. The U.S. is, moreover, entirely complicit with the macabre Israeli siege directed against the people of Gaza that has since Operation Cast Lead allowed little to no concrete or other construction materials for the rebuilding of the physical infrastructure that was destroyed during the assault to pass through. Obama provides no criticism in his comments of the Israeli destruction of Palestinian society: Palestinians are once again told, as they too long have been, to be patient, to bear their burdens; there is no mention here of overthrowing such burdens. Speaking in Cairo, a guest of Hosni Mubarak, Obama fails to chastise the Egyptian government’s inhumane policies toward the Gazan Palestinians, as he more generally fails to condemn the international community as a whole for allowing for the present situation in Palestine. Such failures on his part are unsurprising, though, for we can imagine that were Obama to have provided such critical perspectives on matters, he would surely have undermined his own position and that of the government and society he represents.

Obama’s decidedly regressive conclusion on the question of Israel-Palestine in his Cairo speech is to claim that the induced starvation and impoverishment of the Palestinians of Gaza, as well as the dispossession and violent repression of West-Bank Palestinians, do not serve the security interests of the Israeli state. We know this argument well, or at least we should, for it was advanced by the ‘realists’ John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their 2007 book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. The aspirations of the Palestinian people for happiness and liberation are entirely instrumentalized in this approach: the myriad crimes of Israel against the Palestinians are relevant only insofar as they result in resistance on the part of the Palestinians to the prevailing state of affairs. Were the Palestinians not to struggle against the realities that Israel and the U.S. have imposed upon them, and were Israel’s ‘security’—and that of the U.S.—not hence to be threatened, then, there would be little to be said by much of the world’s political classes about the question of Palestine. Obama’s treatment of this question here is unfortunately but unsurprisingly not terribly different in this sense.

Obama closes the section of his speech dedicated to Israel and Palestine by promising that the U.S. will “align [its] policies with those who pursue peace.” He further tells us that “[a]ll of us” have a “responsibility” to work toward a future reality in which Israeli and Palestinian children alike can grow up “without fear.” How it is that the latter project follows from the commitment to the former—the promised allying of the U.S. with those forces it deems to pursue “peace”—is a rather open question, for it seems entirely doubtful that Palestinian children will be able to live in peace and without fear as long as the U.S. government continues to express “unbreakable” support for Israeli apartheid and to donate billions of dollars a year in military aid to the Israeli state every year, as Obama has done, in completion of past promises.

Clearly, then, something far more substantive than Obama’s weak criticism of Israeli settler-colonialism is needed: if we do actually value the emergence of a reality in which both Palestinians and Israelis can in fact live without fear and in peace, let alone with liberty and justice, we surely cannot rely on the deeply compromised approach delineated by Obama and seemingly supported by many U.S. ‘progressives,’ whether inside the imperial policymaking apparatus or outside of it—let us not forget, for example, that it was the majority of the Senate Democrats who voted in 2002 to authorize a war of aggression against Iraq, that nearly every Congressional Democrat came out in support of Israel’s winter 2008-2009 assault on Gaza, or that nine-tenths of the U.S. House of Representatives endorsed a resolution in November 2009 calling for the rejection of the Goldstone Report.

I would submit that the complicity of Obama and many Western liberals generally with the perpetuation of the dispossession of Palestine should not in fact be seen as an aberration or contradiction of their expressed philosophies, for liberalism in power has overseen the unchecked perpetuation of mass material poverty in an age of historically unprecedented material wealth and stood idly by to the degradation and destruction of much of the Earth. As a political philosophy, it clearly has made its peace with many of the profound social ills of the contemporary world; Palestine is but one illustrative example of such. Resistance to the myriad injustices suffered by the Palestinian people must then come to resist the imperialism and world-destructiveness advanced by Obama and much of mainstream Western politics as a whole, for it is to be hoped and imagined that such illegitimate realities as Zionist brutalization of the Palestinian people would be overthrown with the realization of a more reasonable and humane set of social relations on Earth.

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