Monday, November 9, 2009

Cairo and After: Does Obama Seek a Weak Israel?

This article was written after President Obama's September 23, 2009 speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. It was first published on January 18, 2010 by Israel Resource Review: Behind the News in Israel.


United States President Barack Obama’s June 4th Cairo speech to the Muslim World sought the appearance of even-handedness in discussing the long-standing dispute between Israel and its Arab neighbours. But, read with an eye to the moral context, the Cairo speech was arguably profoundly anti-Israel. This bias was camouflaged by a dramatic reference to the Holocaust and by other acknowledgements of Jewish suffering over the centuries. Obama was likely advised that such sentiments would resonate with USA Jews. However, Israelis were too canny to be fooled by the Cairo speech, after which public opinion polls there saw his approval rate drop like a stone.

White House speech writer Ben Rhodes has said that the Cairo speech showed “frankly, just how he [Obama] personally views the conflict.” Rhodes also said that Obama mulled over every line, every word of the speech. This is significant, because with respect to Israel, the Cairo speech was marked by dissimulation and implication that tended to morally condemn the Jewish State, while largely validating the narrative of Arabs and Muslims.

The meaning of “dissimulation” includes speech calculated to cause belief in something which the speaker has not literally said. Is dissimulation dishonest? An answer depends on the context, but honest or not, dissimulation has always been one of the main elements of statecraft. Obama established his credentials as dissimulator no later than the race for the Democratic nomination. Then, his campaign staff publically acknowledged the dissimulation in his earlier promise that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”


In July 2008 Obama said: “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”


In Cairo, key dissimulation lay in the phrase: “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable.” These exact words were cynically chosen to elicit belief that Obama was expressing approval for current ties with Israel and promising future support. But, linguistically those two sentences neither said that he approved of those “strong bonds” nor offered a promise for the future. They were merely a bare statement of fact, presumably resting on Israel’s popularity with the USA public and in Congress. By contrast, there was both approval and a promise in the pledge that: “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”

Dissimulation with respect to USA support for Israel was corroborated by a later Cairo passage, where Obama threatened change by saying: “America will align our policies with those who pursue peace.” And, who will be deemed to “pursue peace” must naturally be understood within the moral parameters of “just how he personally views the conflict.” The highly conditional nature of Obama’s support for Israel was again revealed in his September 23rd UN General Assembly speech, where he implied that the USA’s “unwavering commitment” to Israel would have to be paid for by concessions to fulfill “legitimate claims and rights of the Palestinians.”

In Cairo, dissimulation was also salient with regard to Jerusalem, in relation to which Obama implied that Israel has failed to accommodate the needs of Muslims and Christians. The Cairo speech specifically spoke about working for the day when Jerusalem would be “a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra.” Here, Obama cynically calculated that non-Muslims would perceive this passage as an anodyne ecumenical reference, while Muslims would understand the Isra story as relating to the Prophet Muhammad’s alleged trip to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque. There, the hadith says that Muhammad was validated as God’s final messenger by his prophetic predecessors, including Moses and Jesus. Thus, for Muslims, the Isra story points to their claim to Jerusalem and their belief that Islam is superior to Judaism and Christianity.

For two centuries, the political and legal doctrine of the self-determination of Peoples has been an engine of world history. The Cairo speech significantly referred to the Palestinian People at least five times without offering a hint that Arabs living around the Jordan River did not generally self-identify as a distinct Palestinian People until after the mid 20th century. By contrast, the Cairo speech referred only once to the very ancient Jewish People ---not as proud bearer of rights--- but in its Diaspora persona as victim. Otherwise, Obama used “Israelis” or words that implied an “Israeli People.” Obama’s terminology thus favoured the Palestinian People and implicitly challenged Israel’s legitimacy by ignoring its key political and legal claim to embody the self-determination of the Jewish People, whose subjective-objective national identity reaches back more than twenty-five centuries. This glaring omission was implicitly acknowledged in the General Assembly speech, where Obama included one reference to Israel as “a Jewish state.”

In Cairo, Obama had nothing to say about close to 1400 years of Arab and Muslim discrimination against Jews ---including periodic maltreatment of Jews in the Holy Land (Eretz Israel). By contrast, he repeatedly implied that Israel is responsible for Palestinian suffering from 1948 to the present. Thus, he referred to Palestinian refugees, failures in economic and social development, “daily humiliations… that come with occupation” and a so-called “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza. Evidently, how Obama “personally views the conflict” is deeply flawed. For example, would the Middle East have had any Jewish (circa 850,000) or Arab (circa 650,000) refugees had Arabs locally and generally followed the Jews in embracing the 1947 UN General Assembly resolution calling for peaceful creation of two new countries, "the Jewish State" and "the Arab State"?

Similarly, the Cairo speech falsely implied that Israel has been the obstacle to a "two States" solution. Thus, Obama said nothing about Prime Minister Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. And, he was silent about Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas’s failure to accept far-reaching "two States" offers by Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert, in 2000 and 2008 respectively. This goes to the crux of the long-standing dispute. Since the 1937 Peel Report, first Zionists and then Israel governments have repeatedly accepted the partition idea, i.e. "two States for two Peoples." By contrast, Arabs locally and generally have almost unanimously rejected the principle of Israel as "the" Jewish State, i.e. as the political expression of the self-determination of the Jewish People in a part of its aboriginal homeland.

In Cairo, Obama deliberately chose to ground rights in mere suffering. This was curious, because as a lawyer Obama had to have known volenti non fit injuria ---the Common Law principle that the plaintiff cannot recover damages to the extent that he himself has caused the harm. Moreover, plaintiffs are required to take timely steps to mitigate their losses, no matter how caused. But, the Cairo speech never asked to what extent Palestinian suffering might be the result of their own bad choices, including their share of responsibility for starting the 1948 war, which was a self-proclaimed Arab attempt to exterminate Jews living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

The Cairo speech repeatedly drew from familiar arguments of Israel’s enemies. First, though there is now no independent State called “Palestine,” the question was begged by present-tense references that also appeared in his General Assembly speech. Second, the Cairo speech slandered Israel by seeming to compare the suffering of Palestinians with that of Black people in the USA. Third, this invidious comparison was reinforced by a gratuitous reference to “segregation” which seemed to slyly point to the canard that Israel is an apartheid State. Fourth was an inappropriate nod to White South Africa and other instances where indigenous Peoples offered “resistance” to colonial rule. Fifth was the implication that Palestinian suffering can be equated with the Holocaust, which is a grotesque and wildly inaccurate comparison that is close kin to the calumny that Israel behaves like Nazi Germany. Finally, the Cairo speech misrepresented the murder of six million Jews as the ideological basis for Israel’s creation.

As a lawyer, Obama had to have known that Israel validates itself, not by the Holocaust, but by virtue of the political and legal doctrines of aboriginal rights and the self-determination of Peoples. Aboriginal rights are normally minority rights. Thus, the Jewish People claimed its right to its homeland in the same way as do the Inuit and First Nations in Canada. And, the Jewish People invoked its self-determination right exactly as does the Arab People, whose self-determination is already expressed in the 21 countries that explicitly self-identify as Arab.

The Cairo speech pandered to Arab and Muslim prejudice by ignoring the continuous presence since pre-Biblical times of large numbers of Jews in the Middle East, where they were around one million in 1900. And, these Middle Eastern Jews always included some who, in each year since antiquity, lived in their ancestral homeland, which by the 19th century had become significantly under-populated by comparison with both Roman times and today. Thus, of all extant Peoples, the Jewish People has the strongest claim to be aboriginal to the Holy Land (Eretz Israel).

For this reason, two decades before the Holocaust, the long-affirmed aboriginal rights of the Jewish People were explicitly and generally recognized by a series of consistent declarations, treaties and international enactments from 1917 to 1922, when the League of Nations created a “national home for the Jewish People” between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Within a larger global and Middle Eastern framework, justice was done ---because simultaneously there was creation or recognition of several new Arab States that were freed from Turkish rule and placed on the road to eventual independence, as was the “national home for the Jewish People.”

By ignoring the Jewish People’s aboriginal and self-determination rights, the Cairo speech could only point to an end to reciprocal suffering as a rationale for terminating Palestinian violence which was dignified as "resistance." By relying on this slender reed, Obama probably diminished prospects for peace. Thus, the Cairo speech alienated most Israelis and failed to provide Arabs and Muslims with an ideological foundation for a peaceful process to respectfully reconcile the prior rights of the Jewish People with the subsequent rights of the newly-emerged Palestinian People. The latter evidently now has rights to claim self-determination, independence and territory. However, these new Palestinian claims do not automatically cancel the Jewish People’s prior rights, which notably include the right of Jews not to be killed by their Arab neighbours. Exactly contrary to President Obama's reference to "resistance", the Palestinian People does not have a right to wage a war of national liberation against the Jewish People which is aboriginal there.

Though repeated lip service was paid to Israel’s right to exist, the Cairo speech painted a moral picture that seemed to argue the contrary. Saying “threatening Israel with destruction is deeply wrong” was probably calculated to resonate with USA Jews who are grateful for Israel’s survival. By contrast, most Israelis have the commonsense to understand that their country deserves much more than mere survival. They know that Israel urgently needs all the rights normally enjoyed by other countries, and that Israel must be judged according to the standards regularly applied to other States in the same or similar circumstances.

Obama’s existential focus was too starkly minimalist to accommodate Israel within the world of States, where each country is driven to advance its own economic and political interests. Given the USA’s touted “strong bonds” with Israel, Obama ought to have said less about a “right to exist” and more about USA help in advancing any number of Israel's aims. The real news here is that Obama perhaps intends to sell Israel short. This recalls national security adviser James Jones’s earlier quip that the new USA administration was not about to “throw Israel under a bus.”

The structure of the Cairo speech implausibly suggested that Iran’s race to develop nuclear weapons is today less “a major source of tension” than “the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab World.” In discussing this Iranian nuclear threat, Obama seemed to signal that he might be willing to break with a decades-old understanding that the USA would refrain from publicly addressing whether or not Israel has nuclear weapons. The implication here was that Obama would perhaps be ready to make the issue of Israel’s nuclear weapons part of a broader deal, embracing Iran and other States in the region.

At Cairo and in the General Assembly, was Obama challenging Israel’s ideological foundations and security interests? An answer can perhaps be found in his special focus on Palestinian suffering. This disturbingly recalls the exaggerated concern for Czechoslovakia’s three million Sudeten Germans that was the moral trigger for the 1938 Munich crisis. Then, myopia on the part of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain rapidly led to the destruction of interwar Czechoslovakia, which was the only democracy in Eastern Europe.

With Europeans appearing as themselves and Palestinians as Sudeten Germans, does President Obama cast himself as Chamberlain? At Munich, the British Prime Minister earned obloquy by being eager to appease at the expense of “people of whom we know nothing.” While irresponsibly failing to face the question of Hitler’s ultimate aims, Chamberlain recklessly sought safety by catering to German demands. The General Assembly speech announced that Obama is searching for a general Middle East settlement. Is this a context in which he will betray Israel’s vital interests to the advantage of 21st century Hitlers played by Iran's leaders with the help of proxies like Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas?

A careful reading of Obama’s remarks in Cairo and at the General Assembly suggests that the President may believe that a weaker Israel now suits the interests of the USA. If so, he should tell the American people why, instead of offering a fabric of dissimulation and implication. And, friends of the Jewish State should see Obama’s moral condemnation of Israel as a flashing red light that warns of the possibility of betrayal ---just as Czechoslovakia was pressed to accept an unsafe peace that was prelude to disaster.

Allen Z. Hertz was formerly senior advisor in the Privy Council Office serving Canada's Prime Minister and the federal cabinet. Earlier he worked in Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and taught history and law at universities in New York, Montreal, Toronto and Hong Kong. He holds a Ph.D. in Ottoman history from Columbia University and international law degrees from Cambridge University and the University of Toronto.

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