News & Media Articles

From Cairo to Tehran... to Jerusalem

16 June 2009 By New Israel Fund

I was unable to hear President Obama’ deliver his speech in Cairo, but I have now read the full text (click here for the full text).   I agree with the many pundits who have lauded both the content and the rhetorical style.  I am confident that my young children will study this speech when they are in college and will come to appreciate the radical shift in US relations with the Moslem world that Obama sought to set in motion. 

Having just completed teaching a course on the right of political participation under international law, I was pleased by the President’s emphatic commitment “to governments that reflect the will of the people.”  At the same time, he properly noted that

no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

These comments assume added poignancy in the aftermath of the June 12 elections in Iran, where peaceful street protests have been met by government-instigated violence and other repressive measures.  

For NIF supporters, the key paragraphs of the speech were those that addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Obama stressed America's unbreakable bond with Israel, but was firm in his expectation that Israel, like the Palestinians and the international community, fulfill those obligations that it has undertaken in the past.  There was clarity in his statement regarding settlements: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”  Obama was equally clear in emphasizing the need for the Palestinians to abandon violence: “resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed.”

Unlike Anwar Sadat’s historic 1977 speech in the Israeli Knesset, which began the transformation of the Egyptian-Israeli conflict, the immediate impact of Obama’s speech on Israelis and Palestinians is likely to be more limited. Deep divisions exist within both societies regarding their respective visions for the future, and domestic political realities pose significant constraints for even the most nimble diplomats.  Nonetheless, the message is clear: achieving a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians represents an important US national interest and justifies the significant investment that the Obama Administration is willing to make in the effort.

Prime Minister Netanyahu responded to Obama on Sunday at Bar Ilan University. As many commentators have noted, the speech, with its presentation of an uncompromising revisionist narrative, was directed more to Netanyahu’s base, than to either the Obama Administration or the Palestinians.  In insisting on a narrow formulation of Israel’s identity, the speech was particularly insulting to the 20 percent of Israel’s population that is not Jewish. 

Still, Netanyahu accepted, albeit in a very grudging manner, the prospect of a Palestinian state and sought to deflect a clash on settlements. Even these quite modest concessions will provoke extremist elements within Israeli society, who will now seek to establish new illegal outposts and who will expand their efforts to harass Palestinians living outside the main cities on the West Bank.  Whether the Netanyahu government, as currently constituted, will have the fortitude to respond to these bold challenges to the rule of law remains to be seen. 

As I have argued before, the key to untying the Gordian Knot of Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to transform the attitudes of the respective populations.  Our work in Israel, which more and more focuses on defending democratic values and institutions, is also key to rebuilding a progressive movement that can influence attitudes and change assumptions. With his June 4 speech, President Obama has made an important contribution, but clearly there is much work still to be done.