A Few Thoughts on Obama’s Middle East Speech

A transformed U.S. role in the region will have to go beyond soaring words and even additional economic assistance. It will require an entirely different policy based on support for popular bottom-up democracy, acceptance of new indigenous definitions of social and economic justice, and respect for local decision-making – even when reality doesn’t match Washington’s illusion of what the “new Middle East” should look like.

Obama’s speech failed to match the extraordinary events of the Arab Spring with a transformed U.S. policy in the region.  Beyond some new economic commitments, the speech was far longer on soaring rhetoric of democracy and freedom than it was on real policy changes.

The announcement of significant new economic assistance, particularly $1 billion in debt relief for Egypt, will be important; but its significance is already undermined by the U.S. imposition on the newly democratizing country to accept the kind of “free trade” policies that have been so disastrous in other parts of the developing world.

And beyond the Arab Spring, the much-hoped for change in policy towards Palestinian-Israeli conflict was nowhere to be seen. President Obama’s closing words, “People should govern themselves” apparently do not apply to Palestinians.

And apparently Obama’s claim that “every state has the right to self-defense” applies only to Israel, not to any future Palestinian state. He defined Israel as “a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people” which means accepting the apartheid laws discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel. And he identified “the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people,” repeating George W. Bush’s explicit rejection of the right of return for Palestinian refugees forcibly displaced between 1947 and 1949 from their homes, in what is now Israel.

President Obama is wrong. The principles he outlined – which are the principles of U.S. diplomacy and Israeli demands – are not the “foundation for negotiations.” The only foundation that will work is that of international law and human rights. Until then, the Arab Spring will not come to Palestinian and Israeli winter. 

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