By Ben Cohen
Barack Obama delivered a mightily impressive speech in Cairo (full text here), laying the basis for a more constructive relationship with the Islamic World. The most important part of the speech centered around the Israeli - Palestinian conflict, and Obama delivered a classically dualistic approach to the crisis:
Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries,
and antisemitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust.
Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps
where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the
Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish
population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant,
and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile
stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in
the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing
the peace that the people of this region deserve.
On the other
hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and
Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60
years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee
camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighbouring lands for a life of
peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure
the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation.
So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is
intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate
Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their
The statement is somewhat contradictory as it lays the blame for Jewish persecution rightfully on Western nations, then implies Arab countries must pay the price for it. This is however, a mute point. Israel is as legitimate (or illegitimate depending on your point of view) as any other nation state in history, and it is clearly not going away. The point is that Palestinians have suffered greatly as a consequence of the birth of Israel, and Obama is explicitly recognizing this.
This is a very significant step in the right direction for the U.S foreign policy as it recognizes the legitimacy of the Palestinian struggle, something the mainstream media barely acknowledges yet alone the government.
Obama also acknowledged the U.S role in the overthrow of the democratically elected government in Iran in the 1950's, another major step forward in foreign policy thinking:
For many years, Iran has defined itself
in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a
tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the cold war, the
United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically
elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic revolution, Iran has
played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against US troops
and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped
in the past, I have made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my
country is prepared to move forward.
The rest of the speech was an extremely well pitched plea to moderates around the world to take a step back from blanket stereotypes of each other, and recognize common interests like nuclear disarmament and economic development. Obama kept the lecturing to a minimum (although it was certainly present), and was careful to strike a balanced tone when it came to overt criticism. He went through the obligatory human rights/women's rights/anti fundamentalism spiel, but was sure to level some of that at other non Muslim countries.
Over all, it was very, very positive opening to a new brand of U.S relations with the Islamic world, and by most accounts, a welcome one.
(photo by Eric Sieverling)