Looking at the current state of affairs as it relates to the events unfolding in the Middle East it’s only been a matter of time before President Obama weighed in on what these protests mean for US power and more importantly how we will react to them.
Putting aside the military campaign in Libya, up to this point Obama’s reaction has shifted from mild support to silent indifference. Fortunately, his speech given on May 19th, which has been dubbed by many commentators as his “biggest speech since Cairo”, can give us valuable insight about his actual position. More than any other aspect of this speech, the fact that Obama voiced support for a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders (commonly referred to as the green line) was met with much attention in the press. The New York Times published an article describing the move as a “first time” for an American President.
Certainly, this statement has some historical value but more importantly we should ask how this rhetoric measures up with the facts. As usual, the rhetoric not only fails to rise to the level of facts but it contradicts them. Mere hours after Obama’s speech Al Jazeera published an article pointing out that the Israeli Interior Ministry briefed PM Netanyahu earlier that day proposing a meeting where they could discuss the building of 1,550 housing units in the settlements of Har Homa and Pigat Ze’ev. Both construction projects are to take place beyond the ’67 border in violation of international law.
It’s interesting to note how the announcement of this deal coincided with Obama’s speech; thus, exempting him from even talking about it. This same trick was employed in the merciless bombing campaign against Gazan civilians which miraculously subsided just moments before Obama’s inauguration.
Aside from these rather normal acts of deception there’s also a far deeper motive behind this soaring rhetoric. For one, endorsing the ’67 borders (in words alone) will be instrumental in derailing the Palestinian’s path toward statehood. Instead of going to the UN and receiving recognition they will have to re-engage themselves in the farcical peace process which is designed to fail thanks to the decisive support of Israel from the US.
In addition to blocking the path to statehood the speech also was designed to engender discord between Hamas and Fatah, two factions that were just beginning to reconcile their differences with the unity deal in Egypt. The seeds of this conflict are perceivable in the reactions of the two groups. While Hamas saw through the president’s rhetoric and demanded more “concrete steps” towards a resolution, PA leader, Mahmoud Abbas, made it clear that he “prefer[ed] negotiations over an appeal to the United Nations this September.” The history of capitulation found in the PA juxtaposed with the more determined approach of Hamas is sure to be the source of much tension and Obama’s speech has the possibility to exploit this.
But all this attention focused on the 67’ line also served to distract people from some more crucial aspects of the speech. Among those was the fact that although the repression in Bahrain was mentioned this was matched with complete silence as it relates to Saudi Arabia’s role in the crackdown. Apparently, oil speaks louder than blood.
Along with this inconvenient fact, Al Jazeera reported that the US plans to seal a $2 billion dollar deal to flood the Middle East with private investment. Apart from the military force that has destroyed many communities in the Arab world, this economic move will likely have the same devastating effect on social structures as it has in many other places in the world by isolating the general population from the centers of decision making. For an example of this look no further than our Mexican neighbors who are still enduring the brutal legacy of so-called “free trade” agreements marketed under the banner of NAFTA.
Factors of this kind must be taken seriously if we aim to get a clear picture of what today’s speech means for peace in the Middle East. We should especially bear this in mind if the Likud Party proceeds with its plan to construct more illegal houses in illegal settlements. In this respect, I agree with Hamas spokesperson, Sami Abu Zuhri, who protested that “what Obama needs to do is not to add slogans.” Indeed, the suffering men, women, and children of Palestine deserve more than empty promises, and highfalutin rhetoric about “peace” and “democracy”. The Palestinian people deserve safe housing, clean water, medical care, decent wages, the right to defend themselves against arbitrary forms of violence, quality educational facilities, and many more of the rights that we continually trample upon.
Following the Palestinian freedom struggle, I’ve noticed that the great Mohandas Gandhi has become a central figure and inspiration for many Palestinians fighting for self-determination. In the introduction to his classic autobiography Gandhi states that “the seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust.” Undoubtedly, we all–particularly those of us who head powerful empire states–must learn to become “humbler than the dust” because if we fail in this endeavor what will prevent this world from becoming just that, dust?