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Obama speaking to Muslims in Egypt

Some of the right wing press* and blogs have attacked Barack Obama’s speech in Egypt where he is obviously seeking to diffuse tensions between the US and the world’s Muslims.  The claims are that he committed errors of historical analysis and argued that the positions of Israel and the Palestinians are ‘morally equivalent’ when obviously they are not.

But it seems to me that the only way international terrorism can be defeated is if it is made clear that the US quarrel is with the terrorists not with Islam.

I think Barack Obama is an outstanding and inspirational leader who will make mistakes and sometimes get it wrong but offers advantages of a fresh approach.

* A representative statement came from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal online:

“We didn’t see President Obama’s big “Muslim outreach” speech in Cairo, as it turned out he was delivering it at 6 a.m. Who knew Muslims were such early risers? But we’ve read the text, and it seems to be a fairly typical Obama speech. By and large it strikes us as conciliatory but not to the point of cravenness. He says some tough things, though not toughly enough for our liking. And as is his wont, he is often quite vague. We’d have liked to see more clarity, but we concede that in statesmanship, vagueness has its uses.

One passage, though, bothers us, because Obama is presenting an ignorant or dishonest account of history:

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 neighboring 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 own.

To hear this, you’d think that Palestinians have lived under Israeli “occupation” for 60 years. In fact, the West Bank and Gaza were under Arab occupation (by Jordan and Egypt, respectively) until 40 years ago (we’re following Obama’s convention of rounding to the nearest decade).

What happened 60 years ago was that the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling for Jewish and Arab states in what was then Palestine. The existing Arab states–Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria–rejected the plan, declared war on Israel, and urged Palestinian Arabs to flee their homes, promising their return upon the Arabs’ victory.

Israel won instead. Palestinians remain in “refugee camps” in large parts because Arab states, except for Jordan, refuse to allow them to resettle. (By contrast, Israel has absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing persecution in Arab countries.) Rather than accept their share of responsibility for the Palestinians’ plight, the Arab states still promise the “right of return” upon Israel’s defeat.

The president continues:

For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers–for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

Obama presents a false choice: between seeing the conflict “only from one side or the other” and treating Palestinian complaints about “the displacement brought by Israel’s founding” and Israeli ones about “the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond” as equivalent and offsetting.

In truth, Israel’s founding was not sufficient to bring about Palestinian displacement. Also necessary for the latter was the Arab states’ violent rejection of the former. And the perpetuation of the Palestinians’ plight is far more the fault of the Arab states (joined recently by Iran), not only for refusing to permit Palestinian immigration but also for giving both material and rhetorical support to Palestinian terrorism against Israel.

Probably it would have been diplomatically unwise for Obama in Cairo to put the matter as bluntly as we have done here. But no real resolution of the conflict is possible so long as the Arab states remain major players and are held to no standard of responsibility for their own actions.

1 comment to Obama speaking to Muslims in Egypt

  • derrida derider

    Not to start yet another flame war about the ME, Harry, but its simply an old and long discredited (by Israeli historians, no less) piece of Israeli government propaganda that “The existing Arab states–Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria–…. urged Palestinian Arabs to flee their homes, promising their return upon the Arabs’ victory.”

    Think about it for a minute – such a course would make zero military sense for a start. If you expected to drive the Zionists into the sea, you wouldn’t want your armies impeded by huge numbers of friendly (so you can’t fire on ’em) hordes trying to cross your lines as you advanced. You’d be calling on them to stay put and hunker down – as the Allies did in the invasions of France and Poland.

    In fact the Arab states called on them to participate in the war by becoming mujahideen. The 1948 war consequently had more the character of the Bosnian war – local, vicious and undisciplined militias assisted by external armies rather than a straight conventional invasion. The Israelis were (understandably) not keen to make these mujahideen into citizens of the new state and “encouraged” them and their families to leave. That this freed land for new kibbutzes was perhaps also not coincidental.

    Obama’s speech was about as great a one as could be made in the circumstances. Unfortunately the time when anything in the ME could be changed by speeches is long past. The Arabs, after all, have their own tradition of great orators and much good it has done them.