Raghida Dergham
Dar Al-Hayat
May 29, 2009 - 12:00am

When US President Barack Obama gives his awaited speech in Egypt next Thursday on June 4, it will be in his interest to have thoroughly examined the speech given by his predecessor, George W. Bush, on April 4, 2002, which was the most powerful speech given by a US President concerning the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel.

Indeed, President Obama is expected to announce a policy that would surpass what George Bush had announced at the beginning of his term, even after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It is also useful for those who place their hopes on Obama’s speech to carefully examine what took place during the two months between the speech given by Bush on April 4, which had achieved a qualitative leap forward, and the “reformed” or “trimmed” speech he gave on June 24, which represented a fundamental retraction from the policy of holding both the Palestinians and Israelis responsible. Indeed, this speech returned to adopting the long-established policy of exclusively blaming the Palestinians, sparing Israel from being held accountable, and repeating the slogan of the absence of a Palestinian partner to negotiate with Israel for peace.

Lessons abound from this short period and they must be diligently interpreted to protect us from expectations and disappointments, as well as in order to strengthen what Barack Obama may put forth in his speech, for which preparations have begun to be made to eat away at it before it is spoken and to bring it down if it goes beyond this. This is not just about what right-wing circles and Jewish leaderships have begun to do in order to reduce and contain expectations, and to pull the rug from under the feet of all those who drive Obama to boldly break the traditions of dealing with Israel by yielding to it despite the extent of its arrogance. This is also about the circle of fears from what the Israeli government is preparing on the field to undermine an atmosphere of peace talks that is being imposed on it, either by taking unilateral measures or through polarizing and drawing others to wars that would obstruct the peace process. In this Israel finds willing partners in the region who are not Arab governments, but rather Arab factions and organizations that fundamentally reject the notion of negotiating for peace and seek to topple the Palestinian partner in negotiations with Israel, i.e. the leadership of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel may not be the only one that wants “Iran first” and then the peace process with the Palestinians and negotiations with Syria and Lebanon. Iran itself may prefer “Iran first”, although not on the same basis as Israel, which seeks the settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue as a precondition either for discussing a Palestinian state or for reviving negotiations vigorously and seriously. Iran does not want the Arab-Israeli conflict to be resolved, nor does it want serious Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, nor a Palestinian state, as long as Israel’s obstinacy in rejecting peace and maintaining the occupation represents a precious asset in Iran’s hands, one that it can wave against Israel, against Arab governments and leaderships, and against the United States for its own benefit. Tehran may want “Iran first” in the sense of obtaining what it wants from Washington, in terms of respect, recognition and relations with the Islamic Republic and its leaderships, as well as a recognition of its perenniality, regional powers, nuclear rights and international standing. Thus Iran may agree with Israel over “Iran first”, at the expense of the Palestinians and Arabs.

Iran and Israel agreeing over this issue does not automatically mean that they will succeed in frustrating the momentum of the Arab and US drive towards serious effort for a fresh start for peaceful negotiations. Nevertheless, there is the potential danger of their obstructing such momentum through sabotage, as each of them has their own means, and sometimes means to common ends meet, despite their contradiction. Thus it is the duty of Hamas and Hezbollah to prevent anyone from using them – through provocation or enticement – to undermine what the Obama Administration seeks to achieve, and which could really become a qualitative shift forward. Indeed, pressures are overwhelming from several sides. Some Jewish leaderships in the US have begun a campaign of quiet obstruction, skillfully designed and based on know-how and on mechanisms of spreading out stances and pressures in an organized manner, and built around “bullet points” agreed upon in advance.

These same parties are those that previously presented George W. Bush with the ladder for climbing downwards from his April 4 speech, reaching halfway down the ladder by June 24, 2002, i.e. two months later. This was followed by complete submission before Israel until the last weeks of his term in office.

This first speech by Bush coincidentally took place on the 4th of the month, as Obama’s will take place on the 4th of next month, knowing that Obama as candidate to the presidency spoke at AIPAC (the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) on the 4th of June 2008, pledging that he, as President, would “work to help Israel achieve the goal of two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security. And I won’t wait until the waning days of my presidency. I will take an active role, and make a personal commitment to do all I can to advance the cause of peace from the start of my administration”, and that is what he is doing.

Many now warn of excessive expectations from the speech Barack Obama will give in Cairo, in which he will address the Muslims of the world in a new language and relationship, as well as a new notion of relations based on partnership with the Muslim world in order to defeat Islamic extremism, which takes the form of terrorism, hatred and targeting the United States.

They say we should not expect a comprehensive initiative or a detailed plan over the Palestinian-Israeli issue or the Arab-Israeli conflict to be put forth, because the administration is still in the phase of listening and formulating ideas, purposely and openly pouring cold water on the speech before it is given, while behind the scene warning the Obama Administration of the consequences of being hasty before Israel is prepared.

If Barack Hussein Obama heads to Cairo to give this speech with less than what Bush had to say about the Palestinian issue, he will be committing a grave mistake, one that may be too difficult for him to correct. Indeed, it was the US Administration itself, not just Arab parties, which contributed to boosting expectations. Hence it is necessary to pay heed to the repercussions of a lacking speech, one that courteously passes over the Palestinian issue by merely reiterating the commitment to the two-state solution. It is absolutely necessary for the US President to provide more, even if his speech is charming in other stances towards Islam and Muslims.

Indeed, Bush’s April 4, 2002 speech included the following: “Israel has recognized the goal of a Palestinian state. The outlines of a just settlement are clear: two states”. Referring in the speech to George Mitchell, President Obama’s current envoy for peace in the Middle East, Bush says: “Consistent with the Mitchell plan, Israeli settlement activity in occupied territories must stop. And the occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognize boundaries consistent with United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338. Ultimately, this approach should be the basis of agreements between Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon”, adding that “Israel should also show a respect, a respect for and concern about the dignity of the Palestinian people who are and will be their neighbors” and “The Israeli government should be compassionate at checkpoints and border crossings, sparing innocent Palestinians daily humiliation. Israel should take immediate action to ease closures and allow peaceful people to go back to work”.

Bush’s speech also addressed what the Hebrew State and the Palestinian Authority must do to combat terrorism. It spoke of the responsibility of the Arabs in development and democracy for their peoples, and of the necessity of viewing Israel as a neighbor, not an eternal enemy. It warned Iran of interfering to obstruct the progress of peace between the Arabs and Israel, saying: “Iran’s arms shipments and support for terror fuel the fire of conflict in the Middle East. And it must stop”. Bush sent his Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region to activate his proposed initiative, frameworks, elements, peace plan and road map, and announced in that speech that the United States would not stand by watching, regardless of the difficulties that might arise: “our nation’s resolve is strong. America is committed to ending this conflict and beginning an era of peace”.

Returning to Bush’s words 7 years ago is important to remind us of what was said and of what took place afterwards. The first challenge for Obama will be not to say less than Bush did when he gives his speech in Cairo. The second challenge will be not to allow the various parties constructing this “ladder” set for descent to force him to retract, as they previously did with his immediate predecessor and with others who came to the White House carrying the resolve to drive all the players in the Middle East to make peace. The third challenge lies in preparing to frustrate the campaign that is being set up in order to achieve the following: containing enthusiasm at the level of the President and his administration’s envoys for an active, effective and rapid US role in driving the peace process forward by exerting pressure on Israel as on others; undermining the integrity of the two-state solution, delaying looking into such a solution under the pretext of being unprepared, or changing the notion of such a solution to mean a State of Israel pure and “cleansed” of the Arab Israelis within; eluding the internationally agreed-upon reference for Arab-Israeli negotiations, such as the exchange of land for peace, the vision of two states on the basis of the 1967 borders and ending the occupation; reducing the Palestinian issue to one of “inhabitants” instead of dealing with the Palestinians as a people with the legitimate national rights to a state; turning the table around on the Palestinian partner in negotiations with Israel by raising doubts over President Mahmoud Abbas and his ability to make peace with Israel because of inter-Palestinian disputes, while working in parallel to make Hamas prominent on the US scene then besieging the Palestinians, in view of Hamas’s refusal to negotiate on the basis of the two-state solution. This would prepare the terrain for claiming once again that there is no Palestinian partner in making peace and placing on the Palestinian side alone the burden of constant US blame, within the strategy of exempting Israel from blame and from making peace.

What the Barack Obama Administration should prepare for necessarily includes the influx of pressures upon it to curb its speed in addressing the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Its first test will be in the Cairo speech.

Indeed, it will not be enough for President Barack Hussein Obama to address Muslims from Al-Azhar Mosque or any other location, to say what signifies that he understands them and sympathizes with them, as they too are the victim of the terrorism of extremists. It will not be enough for him to reiterate in Cairo what he announced in Istanbul, in terms of understanding the focal and central importance of the Palestinian issue in the hearts and minds of Muslims. Indeed, enough time has been spent on listening and formulating, especially as Special Envoy George Mitchell has come to the region repeatedly and has listened.

Indeed, the opportunity to make peace is a historic one if President Barack Obama becomes determined to make it so, regardless of the pressures and resistance he faces. Most Muslims in the world will listen carefully to what he will say on June 4, and they are expecting clear steps for a radical solution to the Palestinian issue, as a fundamental key to restoring trust in the United States and its leadership.


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