Saturday, June 6, 2009

What did he say?

Below is a selection of views-from-the-left of US President Obama's June 4th speech at Cairo University.

Joel Beinin, who is one of our contributing editors, commented on the talk (by email communication) for the Jewish Voice for Peace (, "a diverse and democratic community of activists inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, and human rights. We support the aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians for security and self-determination."

The second, quite critical account comes (by email communication) from veteran Israeli peace activist and analyst, Reuven Kaminer.

Three additional Israeli academics and activists, Nurit Peled, Neve Gordon and Ilan Pappe, commented on the speech at the request of the Russel Tribunal on Palestine. For full information on the Russel Tribunal see: The Tribunal is "a civic initiative promoting international law as the core element of the Israeli-Palestinian issue" and commenced following "an appeal from Ken Coates, Nurit Peled, and Leila Shahid, and with the support of over a hundred well-known international personalities. ... Through a decentralised functioning, the organisation of public sessions and other public events, the organisation of a Russell Tribunal on Palestine is designed as a large communication event, with widespread media coverage over the tribunal and its outcomes. Indeed, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine having no official mandate, its impact rests on its ability to mobilise public opinion, so that the latter puts pressure on governments to obtain that
they change their policies in the ways that are necessary to reach a just and lasting peace in the Middle East."

The last piece is a letter (by email communication) to supporters of Code Pink ( "a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement" of "people who want to influence a shift in the focus of world society from militarism to life-affirming endeavors". Code Pink delegations are currently in Gaza, Egypt and Israel; their partner in Israel is the Coalition of Women for Peace ( with which they are co-organizing "10 Days of Activism Against the Siege on Gaza".

Rela Mazali


We've asked Prof. Joel Beinin, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Middle East History at Stanford University, to give us his impression on President Obama's speech in Cairo today. We're sharing his response with you.

An articulate and charismatic President of the United States named Barack Hussein Obama giving a speech at Cairo University co-sponsored by al-Azhar, the most eminent institution of Muslim learning - now that's a new picture. Its enormous symbolic value is President Obama's biggest asset as he implements policy on the entire range of difficult issues he mentioned. The President stated, "Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail." This is an excellent basis for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The President did not provide details on how the conflict should be resolved beyond general support for "two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security." But the meaning of this formulation is now contested due to its empty repetition by presidents and prime ministers whose actions and inactions have undermined it. Instead President Obama emphasized U.S. rejection of "the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," saying nothing about the future of those settlements already existing and their nearly 500,000 inhabitants. By limiting himself to an apparently pragmatic "first step," President Obama may have made his task harder. If he does not produce concrete results very soon on this limited, albeit it absolutely necessary, measure, then the potential value of his fine words in Cairo will soon diminish.

Joel Beinin

June 4, 2009
Stanford, CA


For Unrestricted Distribution Excuse Multiple Posting
From the desk of Reuven Kaminer June 5, 2009

The Constantly Widening Gap Between Words and Deeds

There are political circles and commentators who live from minute to minute. For them, every squeak from a world leader is a virtual earthquake, a real revolution. This is especially true now that we are dealing with a US president, who is handsome, articulate and even eloquent. The present level of manipulated excitement stems from the non-revelation that Barak Obama is against settlements and for the two state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also sees importance in improving the tainted image of the United States in the Arab and Moslem worlds. Now who can ask for anything more?

It is not that I disregard the significance of declarations but these must be carefully sifted so as to distinguish changes in the usual discourse. Repetition of old and pious wishes means little, while the appearance or disappearance of different formulations and elements is worth attention. But even before seeing how Obama is stacking up to his recent declarations, seen in Israel as criticism of Israeli policy, there is one new Obama element which demands urgent analysis.

The Normalization Gambit

Obama has added a new, problematic, and dangerous dimension to the formula for the solution of the conflict. He has called on both the Palestinians and the Arab countries to take immediate steps, before the conclusion of peace with Israel, so as to normalize their relations with Israel. Now this demand is quite embarrassing for the so-called moderate pro-USA, Arab countries which already maintain a high level of geo-political coordination with Israel despite the occupation. Moreover, Obama's demand that an occupied people, the Palestinians, who are denied the most basic of rights to their very existence, should take steps normalizing their relations with the occupying power as a condition for reaching a peace agreement is ludicrous, to say the least. This idea, coming from Obama, may indicate a certain lack of understanding of the conflict. Any expression of moderation by the Palestinians has always been interpreted by Israel and its allies as a sign of weakness, and full scale
normalization in the region before peace will become the ultimate proof for the Israeli argument that the occupation is no barrier to peace.

This scandalous demand for pre-peace normalization is cause for concern that regional normalization meets, first and foremost the requirements of US policy, and if normalization before peace and as a condition for peace is inimical to the interests of Israeli-Palestinian peace, then the Palestinians will just have to wait… The Israeli right has already drawn up a long list of confidence measures that it will demand immediately from the Arab world and from the Palestinians. These will be pre conditions for moving forward and Obama will be called on to pay the bill. Is this accidental, or just another escape route from peace that must be available in case of need.

The Outposts Farce – Who is Mocking Whom?

Obama, just like Bush, is against settlements since they are quickly destroying the dwindling territorial base for the establishment of a Palestinian entity. The area under discussion is a mere 22% of Palestine and choking it with literally hundreds of towns and villages is designed to wipe out a country and a people, literally to wipe it off the map. The Netanyahu government, like the Olmert government, is a coalition of enthusiastic annexationists, who exploit every opportunity to grab land and drive out the local population. The recent US protests against the settlements should be seen as a request that Israel stop embarrassing Obama on a daily basis, especially when he is busy trying to improve the US image in the Muslim world.
The latest phase of the settlement drive, which resulted in the establishment of a spate of tens of illegal outposts, is spearheaded by groups of crazed, young religious fanatics, known in Israel as "the hilltop youth." They carry IDF issued weapons and recognize no secular authority as they pursue their goal and simply rebuild any of the shanty sites torn down by the IDF. They are enthusiastically backed by the rabbis in the West Bank, who happen to be government employees, and they are the darlings of the right wing politicians. The IDF acts under the assumption that sheet-metal and lumber are the guilty party. The army bulldozes the shanties, declares victory and goes home. The "hilltop youth" rebuild the shanties and are practically immune from prosecution as long as they stick to shanty building (on Arab land) and serial pogroms against the Palestinian farmers in the area.
A few weeks ago, peace activists from the New Profile underwent a degrading police investigation on suspicion that they were encouraging youngsters to question their conscription to an army of occupation and national oppression. The settler rabbis inspire lawlessness and violence against the state, and the settler provocations go on without arrests.
Asides from statements, there is no sign that Obama intends any action against Israeli responsibility for the outposts and the "natural growth" of the established settlements.

At this point, we have to go back to square one. In its essence, the occupation is not a purely Israeli affair, but a joint US-Israeli project. Indeed, the management is local, but ownership belongs to the US as the financial backer and the provider of the political and military cover for the operation. The United States owns this occupation and is morally and politically responsible for the continued violent repression of the most basic Palestinian rights.

At this point, Netanyahu still fears the settlers more than he fears Obama, unless Obama gets serious. He may move against the outposts only to demonstrate that this is a tremendously difficult and politically costly action. He has reasonable hopes of modifying Obama's ban on natural growth, as long as Obama is not clear that the settlements themselves must be dismantled and not "regulated." The very existence of any settlement over the 1967 border is illegal, and should be summarily dismantled. This would solve the natural growth dilemma.

So far, Netanyahu is a bit worried, along with Barak. His plan it to drag out the whole matter until the US loses interest or prefers to avoid any confrontation with Israel. This tactic, it must be noted, has succeeded in the past.

Obama in Cairo

It is to be feared that Obama's "dramatic" speech to the Islamic and Arab worlds has more to do with cosmetics than with politics. Obama is certainly right about the need to improve the image of the United States but, alas, this is not a matter of rhetoric.
The Washington DC, Riyad, Cairo triangle is one of those decaying power alliances that holds the fort for the United States. Obama's Middle East partners are not squeamish about torture and jail for their opponents who dare to act up. Mubarak and the Saudi king, Abdullah, are the heads of reactionary, brutal regimes. Of course, they are bastards but they are Obama's bastards - so what else is new? Even speechwise, there was very little of new substance in the Cairo spiel. Especially, if you were at Annapolis.

Once again, we are struck with the gap beween words and action. Obama's propaganda team is working overtime to present the current problems in a limited and almost meaningless framework. So let's get it clear for the n'th time. The twenty-two outposts are not the problem, nor is the need to restrict the "natural growth" in the more established settlements. The problem is not the lack of an indeterminate, endless peace process. The problem is not even the need that Netanyahu adopt the Olmert-Bush two state formula. Are we to become excited at the prospect that Obama might nudge Netanyahu back to the negotiating table? Aw, come on!
Even in his strongest suit, rhetoric, Obama is way off base. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a conflict between two overzealous national formations that must learn manners and civility from the international community and its leader. Israel, based on the unique advantages of the military, political and economic support of the United States has been skimming off Palestinian rights and land for more than forty years as commission for its pro-US services. Obama is not an honest broker, he is not even a biased broker. He is a side to the conflict and he will be one until he, openly and clearly, makes a commitment to cut off the funds and the guns which implement policies that he opposes – ostensibly.


Nurit Peled:

Well I enjoyed it tremendously. It was, like all his other speeches, a breath of fresh air. This man is honest, educated, extremely eloquent, extremely human, determined to do the right thing and has the best interest of people at heart.

The only thing that bothered me was that whereas he spoke of Violent Muslim extremists around the world, emphasising these were a potent minority of Muslims, He declared that Palestinians must abandon violence, as if all Palestinian are violent, as if this is their way of dealing with the problems, while we all know that most PAlestinians are not violent, dont have weapons and resist the occupation in non violent ways that should have been admired by such a man. Also, he did not use the word violence even once when describing Israel's conduct, instaed he limited himself to the settlelemts and the general evil of occupation.
But this is a marginal remark. I do believe he means business and will force the Israeli government to stop lying and do the right thing.

Neve Gordon:

President Obama is a great orator and, at least ostensibly, his Cairo speech does signify a change in US foreign policy in the Middle East. I would like to pause, however, on one sentence, the one in which he declares that the US "will not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity" in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I wonder why Obama inserted the word "continued" into the sentence and how does this word change the meaning of the phrase.

The word continued could refer to the illegitimacy of continued settlement growth, it could mean the illegitimacy of the ongoing settlement project, etc. The purpose of the word continued is accordingly not to clarify, but rather to render the meaning of the sentence unclear, imprecise. In a speech where every word is examined again and again, this is not an accident. If Obama had not inserted the word continued in the speech, everyone would know that in his opinion the settlement project as a whole is illegitimate, but he chose to be vague even if this is in fact what he thinks.

At the end of the day, though, it is less the words that count, and more the actions. Israel does not intend to freeze the settlement build-up nor is it going, of its own free will, to dismantle the illegal settlements and bring the settlers back home. The question, then, is what Obama will do. Will he exert enough pressure to save Israel from itself? Or will he allow, following his predecessors, to become a full blown Apartheid regime?

Ilan Pappé:

The speech was refreshing in its music and tone. It was impressive to hear reference to Iran not as a demonised entity and to learn that the USA is in no need anymore for such demons in order to define itself and its role in the world.

I was impressed with the reference to the term and concept of Palestine and not a Palestinian state as well to his recognition that Palestinian suffering did not begin in 1967, but at least in 1948.
I noticed, like everyone else, the correct pronunciation of Arabic and the employment of Islamic discourse and how well it was received. However, although it won accolades in the hall, I doubt whether it would satisfy people around the Muslim world. Many of them would wait for deeds and would be less impressed by gestures.

But on the whole, I have to admit that I was not disappointed, as I did not expect much. The substantial issues were not included in the speech, and I did not expect them to be. Even the settlements appeared only as illegitimate if they are continued, while their very existence is illegitimate. If the deal is, as one gathers from Rahm Emmanuel, is an America willingness to replace a Netanyahu government by a Livni government in return for endorsing systematic human rights violations in the Arab world, it means that cynicism still reigns. The Palestine issue would not be solved, human rights issues would not be improved and the destruction and dispossession of Palestine would continue.

But let us speak sweetly as we may have to eat our words, hopefully in this case. Whether this was a charade or a genuine opening of a new chapter only deeds and time would tell. Can Obama at all oppose Israel's source of power: the Congress? If he can, this is a different ball game.


June 5, 2009

As President Obama delivered his much-anticipated speech to the Arab and Muslim world in Cairo yesterday, millions worldwide watched from home, journalists analyzed word for word, and thousands crowded around Cairo University. But only one group was present outside the university--CODEPINK was there with a giant pink banner reading "Obama Stop Funding Israeli War Crimes" (in English and Arabic), ready to deliver a letter from Hamas to Obama and 10,000 signatures calling on Obama to visit Gaza.

Members of CODEPINK's extraordinary delegations of 175 people were delivering a ground-breaking letter from Hamas to Obama (read the letter here) via the U.S. Embassy in Cairo urging Obama to visit Gaza and calling for talks with all parties based on mutual respect and international law. As delegate Philip Weiss writes in his blog, "But such is the stranglehold of the Israel lobby on our politics... Everyone else is feckless, and so a group of pink-swathed feminists who joke with the Hamas security about their scary beards have become players."

CODEPINK was able to deliver the petition and the letter to the US Embassy in Egypt. The current peace delegations--entering Gaza through Israel and Egypt--have been busy building three pink playgrounds, delivering toys and aid to the children of Gaza.

See the photos of the playground and letter delivery!
Read more press coverage about the Gaza delegations here and the Hamas letter delivery here.

Follow us on Twitter and get up-to-the-minute delegation action updates!
Read blogs from our delegates here!
Thank you for supporting this much needed work in Gaza. You can continue to fund these projects. Click here to find out how.

In peace,
Allison, Audrey, Blaine, Dana, Desiree, Farida, Gael, Gayle, Janna, Janet, Jean, Jodie, Liz, Lori, Lydia, Medea, Nancy, Pam, Paris, Rae and Tighe

Jewish Peace News editors:
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Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
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Alistair Welchman
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