Cairo: a Post Mortem

President Barack Obama’s much anticipated speech in Cairo was truly astounding.

After all the months of lead-up and hype, few could have imagined that this speech would contain nothing of substance. Surely Obama would feel the need to announce some new initiative on at least one of the major matters of concern to the Muslim world. Perhaps a decision to develop a fully fleshed-out plan for a two-state solution, unilaterally or with the Quartet and/or the Organization of the Islamic Conference (King Abdallah of Jordan’s “57 Muslim countries” willing to make peace with Israel), dealing with all the difficult issues, and to present it to Israelis and Palestinians as the last best chance for peace based on partition and the acceptance of Israel by the Muslim world. Or perhaps an international conference involving all concerned regional parties to seek solutions to the interlinked problems involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and/or Iran.

Surely he had to have some hopeful surprise up his sleeve. Wrong. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

There were, of course, many eloquent mood-music paragraphs and a smattering of quotes from the Holy Quran (as well as the Bible and the Talmud). Obama obviously believes that America’s unchanged objectives with respect to the Muslim world are more likely to be pursued successfully by being polite and complimentary than by being rude and intentionally insulting. But the mood-music paragraphs dealt with atmospherics or the past. When it came to the present and the future and to concrete matters of American objectives and policies, there was nothing new. Nothing hopeful. Nothing.

He certainly offered nothing new or hopeful to the Afghans and Pakistanis, to whom he implicitly promised perpetual war, saying (in a verbal and intellectual formulation uncharacteristically childish for him) that American troops will keep fighting in their countries so long as there are “violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can” — which there are guaranteed to be so long as the Americans keep fighting in their countries.

He certainly offered nothing new or hopeful to the Iranians, again adopting the views of the Israeli, rather than the American, intelligence agencies on the issue of whether Iran has a current nuclear weapons program and menacing that “when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point”.

He certainly offered nothing new or hopeful to the Iraqis, opining that they were “better off” as a result of America’s invasion of their country.

Most certainly and emphatically, he offered nothing new or hopeful to the Palestinians, promising to pursue a two-state solution “with all the patience that the task requires” — i.e., with no sense of urgency (unlike his pursuit of Iran) and without any firm deadline, as would be essential for there to be even a miniscule hope of success. This commitment to infinite patience constitutes an effective promise to pass the problem on, in an even more intractable and hopeless condition, to his successor.

Gaza? It rated one mention: “The continuing humanitaraian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security.” Israel’s security? Nothing about the holiday-season massacre of over 1300 Gazans? Nothing about the crippling Israeli blockade and siege? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Jerusalem? Obama expressed the hope that the city could become “a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together”. Mingle? In the context of Obama’s repeated references to two states, one might have expected a vision of the city as the shared capital of those two states living together in peace and reconciliation. No. No sharing. That would have contradicted his pledge in his speech to AIPAC’s National Conference last summer. Just a right to mingle, so long as Christians and Muslims did so “peacefully”, without raising awkward questions about any rights in or to Israel’s eternal and undivided capital.

And then, of course, Obama had to say this: “To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements and recognize Israel’s right to exist” — unbalanced, even in a speech ostensibly intended to reach out to the Muslim world, by any hint that, to be worthy of interaction with civilized people, Israel must renounce violence, recognize past agreements and recognize Palestine’s right to exist.

This tired, morally bankrupt American mantra essentially argues that only the rich, the strong, the oppressors and the enforcers of injustice (notably the Americans and the Israelis) have the right to use violence, while the poor, the weak, the oppressed and the victims of injustice must renounce violence, submit to their fate and accept whatever crumbs their betters may magnanimously deign suitable to let fall from their table — a principle dear to the hearts and minds of those who are happy with the status quo but not one likely to win hearts and minds among those who are not or, indeed, anyone who believes that justice should be pursued and injustice resisted.

As if that were not enough, Obama also felt the need to declare that America’s bonds with Israel are “unbreakable” — a statement one would expect in a speech to AIPAC or on the American campaign trail but one which one would not normally have thought essential to include in this particular speech before this particular audience. At least it is a statement consistent with one of Obama’s Quranic citations — “Speak always the truth”. It constitutes a proclamation (or admission) that America is not and will never be a truly independent nation and that this is just fine with Barack Obama.

If Israelis were looking for assurance that any public “pressure” from Obama to improve their behavior would be purely rhetorical and could be ignored with impunity, here was that assurance.

Nevertheless, one intriguing paragraph in the speech is worth considering: “Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. The same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia.”

Comparing the position of today’s Palstinians to that of black slaves in America or native South Africans under that country’s apartheid regime can only be constructive. However, Obama has not thought through the context or his conclusion. As he rightly notes, those oppressed peoples and victims of injustice whom he cites were seeking “full and equal rights”, not the partition of their countries.

If the goal of an oppresed people is to convince a determined and powerful settler-colonial movement which wishes to seize their land, settle it and keep it (eventually emptying it of them and their fellow natives) that it should cease, desist and leave, nonviolent forms of resistance are suicidal. If, however, the goal were to be to obtain the full rights of citizenship in a democratic, nonracist state (as was the case in the American civil rights movement and the South African anti-apartheid movement), then nonviolence would be the only viable approach. Violence would be totally inappropriate and counterproductive. The morally impeccable approach would also be the tactically effective approach. The high road would be the only road.

Nonviolence is clearly morally preferable to violence. Democracy and equal rights are clearly morally preferable to apartheid and partition. The better goal and the better tactic are a perfect match, the only match that truly offers hope. If and when the current Palestinian leaderships, or the Palestinian people under a new and better leadership, draw the only rational conclusion from Barack Obama’s Cairo speech — that he offers them neither change nor hope and that they must rely exclusively on themselves in the pursuit of justice — they should courageously press their own “reset” button and unite to pursue democracy and equal rights by nonviolent means.

JOHN V. WHITBECK, an international lawyer who has advised the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel, is author of “The World According to Whitbeck“.


John V. Whitbeck is a Paris-based international lawyer.