No Change or Hope in U.S. Policy

Obama’s Middle East Speech

In his “major policy speech” on the Middle East at the State Department May 17, President Obama announced “a new chapter in American diplomacy.” The speech, which we can divide into seven parts, in fact represents no new departures for U.S. policy. Like Obama’s presidency itself, it is more of the same.

1. A “New Chapter”?

“I want to talk about this change,” he began. (But recall how he campaigned on a “change” platform, and proceeded to continue all of Bush’s key foreign policies.) He then listed the components of this “new chapter.” “Already,” Obama declared, “we’ve done much to shift our foreign policy,” by removing “100,000 American troops and [ending] our combat mission” in Iraq. But the withdrawal of U.S. troops merely conforms to the Status of Forces Agreement signed by the Baghdad authorities and the Bush administration in December 2008, before Obama took office. It is no “shift.” 46,000 U.S. troops plus 180,000 mercenaries remain in the country. On average one U.S. soldier has died each week since the “withdrawal” nine months ago. And while the agreement specifies that all U.S. troops will withdraw by the end of 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has suggested that–contrary to the agreement–“tens of thousands” of U.S. forces will remain after this year.

“In Afghanistan, we’ve broken the Taliban’s momentum,” Obama boasted. Even if this were true, it would not constitute a “shift in foreign policy.” But it’s not true; all the evidence shows the Taliban strengthening while Afghan public opinion becomes increasingly hostile towards NATO.

2. Recognition of the “Arab Spring”

Obama segued from this (bogus) “shift in our foreign policy” theme (which is basically a prettification of continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) to the real change he needs to address. What has changed is the mood of the Arab masses, from Morocco to the Persian Gulf. The “Arab Spring” is in fact a source of great anxiety for the U.S. and its allies (particularly Israel, which so cherished its relationship with Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak). Obama introduced this topic, oddly, by linking it to (what supporters claim to be) his signal accomplishment, the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

And after years of war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, we have dealt al Qaeda a huge blow by killing its leader, Osama bin Laden… But even before his death, al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life. By the time we found bin Laden, al Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands.

This put the best face possible on a complex movement likely to cause Obama some headaches. He depicted it as a repudiation of al-Qaeda terrorism (as though “the vast majority of the region” had ever embraced that), rather than principally a rejection of U.S. allies and lackeys presiding over distorted economies, grotesque corruption, police-state brutality and complicity in the Zionist oppression of Palestinians. Those “taking the future in their hands” are likely to not only repudiate the unjust regimes that have fallen, but their slavish submission to U.S. pressure. The U.S. is deeply concerned that a popular government in Yemen, succeeding the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, will cooperate less in the “war on terror” including U.S. missile strikes that have killed dozens of Yemeni civilians. Washington says Saleh should go, but wants to oversee the transition as closely as possible. The U.S. is also concerned that the Egyptian elections scheduled for September will empower the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most popular political party (although illegal under Mubarak). Washington also looks askance at a presidential run by Mohamed ElBaradei, former IAEA head and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, who in his recent memoir accused the U.S. of lying about Iraq’s (alleged) weapons of mass destruction and accused the U.S. of war crimes in Iraq.

Real change in Arab responses to Israel is a crucial concern. According to Obama, up until the current upheavals “too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half-century after the end of colonialism. Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression.” In other words, the (generally pro-U.S.) rulers sought to deflect valid protest against themselves by allowing the masses to nurture (irrational) resentments against a West no longer colonial in any sense, and antagonism towards Israel which is apparently also unfounded. One wonders how such condescending words were met with in the Middle East, where people are painfully aware of the realities of neo-colonialism and the daily humiliations to which Zionists subject Palestinians.

There is in any case no contradiction between opposing Arab regimes, Western governments’ policies, and Israel. As Anthony Shadid reported in the New York Times, “the street protests erupted [in Tunisia] when Arabs seemed more frustrated than ever, whether over rising prices and joblessness or resentment of their leaders’ support for American policies or ambivalence about Israeli campaigns in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009.” One reason Tunisia’s Zine El Abidene Ben Ali as well as Hosni Mubarak were so unpopular was because of their cordial relations with Israel. (From the mid-90s to 2000, Tunisia was one of the very few Arab countries with de facto diplomatic relations with Israel; these were suspended at the beginning of the Second Intifada in response to popular indignation at Israeli actions. Still, Israel preferred Ben Ali to the regime that’s succeeded him. Binyamin Netanyahu’s government now complains about “the worsening of the Tunisian authorities’ and society’s attitude toward the Jewish community” while urging Tunisia’s 1,500 Jews to emigrate to Israel.) It’s not surprising that the first concrete manifestation of change in Egypt since the transitional military government took over has been the lifting of the boycott of Gaza and reopening of the Rafah crossing, following the new foreign minister’s successful brokerage of the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement. Both the U.S. and Israel have expressed concern if not alarm about these developments.

“There are times in the course of history,” Obama continued, “when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building up for years. In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat. So it was in Tunisia…”

Tunisians may find such comparisons flattering. But they probably know what Obama did not mention: between 1987 and 2009, the U.S. provided $349 million in military aid to Ben Ali’s government. Just last year the Obama administration asked Congress to approve the sale 12 Sirkosky military helicopters worth $ 282 million (with GE-built engines) to Tunisia. (France, which provided almost a billion euros in aid from 2006 to 2010, has been second only to the U.S. as a provider of military aid. It supplies trainer and transport aircraft, helicopters, naval vessels, armored vehicles, artillery, small arms, and ammunition.)

“The story of this revolution, and the ones that followed, should not have come as a surprise… In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of a few. ” Actually, the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings have been described as only “half-revolutions,” movements still in progress (and which could be co-opted). And there have only been those two. One uprising (in Bahrain) was forcibly suppressed by 1500 Saudi-led troops (who may have been trained by the British Military Mission to the Saudi National Guard, in courses on “public order”) March 13 with barely a murmur of protest from the U.S. The U.S. called for “restraint” as U.S.-supplied Apache helicopters fired on protesters. Meanwhile the State Department denied the Saudi action was an “invasion.”

And as for “power concentrated in the hands of a few”–the top 20% of U.S. citizens control 85% of the wealth in this country. The top 1% control over 40%. A CIA study conducted last year showed income inequality in Egypt considerably less than in the U.S. (with a GINI coefficient of 34.4 as opposed to 45.0 for the U.S.). (Iran is also more equitable, with a 44.0 coefficient.) Should it come as a surprise to anyone if we have an uprising here?

3. Justification of Traditional U.S. Policy

Having validated the protests throughout North Africa and the Middle East, the president defended traditional U.S. policy in the region.

“For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace. We will continue to do these things, with the firm belief that America’s interests are not hostile to people’s hopes; they’re essential to them. We believe that no one benefits from a nuclear arms race in the region, or al Qaeda’s brutal attacks.”

One can only imagine how this was received on the Arab street. Countering terrorism? The “security” apparatuses throughout the region, outfitted and trained by U.S. and other western forces, have been appropriately compared to those in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Soviet-allied regimes. Do they not inflict terror on the citizenry? And what “security” has the U.S. invasion and occupation brought Iraq, where neighborhoods have been ethnically cleansed, women terrorized for violating the Islamic dress code, Christians and professionals driven into exile, five million displaced internally or forced to flee the country since the 2003 invasion?

Stopping the spread of nuclear weapons? The U.S. prevents any discussion of Israel’s “secret” nuclear weapons, while demanding that the world embrace its entirely unproven charge that Iran has a nuclear weapon’s program. (Later in the speech, Obama refers in passing to Iran’s “illicit nuclear program” although most of the world doesn’t buy that charge and ElBaradei while IAEA chief repeatedly stated that there is no scientific evidence for an Iranian nuclear weapons program.)
Securing the free flow of commerce? Imposing sanctions on Syria and before that, Iraq? Imposing programs of imperialist globalization (forcing reduction of tariffs, for example, that make local industry unable to compete with cheap Asian-made imports) as the condition for aid has exacerbated the chronic problem of high unemployment–a key grievance sparking the Arab Spring? Safe-guarding the security of the region? Many must wonder who is securing the region from U.S. attack. And who is preventing the Israelis from lashing out periodically at Lebanon and Gaza, or bombing Syria to the applause of the U.S. Congress?

Standing up for Israel’s security? What does that mean? Writing Israel a blank check as it illegally settles the West Bank, making “Arab-Israeli peace” impossible, and supporting its attacks on neighbors? The smug dishonesty of this depiction of policy must make many Arabs want to puke.

4. New U.S. Policy: To “Welcome Change”

Nevertheless, Obama continues, this noble pursuance of “U.S. core interests” is not enough.

“Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind. Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense.” Thus he both dissociates the pursuit of those interests from the support of the dictatorships under siege, and dismisses legitimate anger as “suspicion”–as though the masses were somehow confused. (One recalls the efforts of numerous “goodwill ambassadors” from Washington visiting the Middle East to “clarify” and “explain” U.S. policy, as though the natives’ hostility was all based on misunderstanding.)

So we face a historic opportunity. We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity… [I]t will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.

But hasn’t it long been U.S. policy to pay lip-service to “transitions to democracy” at some level of theory? Hasn’t the U.S. always trumpeted its system of “freedom and democracy” as a model for the world? (Never mind that the electoral debacle of 2000, or the PATRIOT Act reveal that the U.S. itself has abandoned such ideals) This policy of promoting reform and transition to democracy, always articulated to some degree, was especially broadcast when it became clear that the stated reasons for the Iraq invasion of 2003 were fabricated. After that the neocons in control of the Bush Administration shifted gears and argued that–embarrassing “intelligence failures” notwithstanding–the U.S. was in any case assisting a region-wide movement towards “democracy.” This was supposed to counter “Islamofascism” and the threat of terrorist attacks). But hadn’t U.S. proconsul in Baghdad stated in summer 2003 that elections in Iraq could “be destructive,” adding that while there was “no blanket rule” against democracy in Iraq, and he wasn’t “personally opposed to it,” it had to take place “in a way that takes care of our concerns” and “done very carefully”? In any case, the neocons backed off when relatively free elections brought gains to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (2005), to Hamas in Palestine (2006), and Hizbollah in Lebanon (2009).

Not only is this “policy” of supporting “democracy” in words not new, it’s questionable given its timing. Why did it take mass-based movements swelling across the Middle East to induce Obama to make this speech? He himself acknowledged, “It’s not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo.” Indeed he acknowledged “decades of accepting the world as it is in the region.” (He might have noted the U.S. helped create what it “accepted” by installing such dictators as the Shah of Iran.) But now, he adds generously, “we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.” (Read: a chance to offer $20 billion in aid to the Arab world’s “new democracies” of Tunisia and Egypt–as the G8 just did–in an attempt to buy their affection, a chance to posture as benevolent allies of the people who’ve been there all along.)
But don’t suppose that the U.S. will end support to dictatorships anytime soon. “But our support,” Obama is careful to add, “must also extend to nations where transitions have yet to take place.” The teleological assumption that all nations will ultimately gravitate towards “democracy” as Obama understands it is here used as justification for support for the status quo. Any small pro forma step (such as the holding of elections for advisory councils in Saudi Arabia or Oman) can be depicted as “progress” justifying support, even when those councils are mere window-dressing and stop-gap measures designed to appease the people and insure positive mention in the annual U.S. State Department “human rights” reports.

5. U.S. Policy: to Order Unfriendly (or No Longer Useful) Rulers Out

“Unfortunately,” the president continued, “in too many countries, calls for change have thus far been answered by violence.” He acknowledges that the violent repression has occurred in countries both friendly and unfriendly to the U.S.:
“In Cairo, we heard the voice of the young mother who said, ‘It’s like I can finally breathe fresh air for the first time.’ In Sanaa [Yemen], we heard the students who chanted, ‘The night must come to an end.’ In Benghazi [Libya], we heard the engineer who said, ‘Our words are free now. It’s a feeling you can’t explain.’ In Damascus, we heard the young man who said, ‘After the first yelling, the first shout, you feel dignity.’”

This would seem on the surface a gracious validation of protests even in countries firmly allied with the U.S. (Egypt, since the 1970s, and Yemen, one more tentatively aligned, bullied into a relationship to root out al-Qaeda since 2001). These are listed alongside Libya, historically antagonistic, but friendly and cooperative since 2003; and Syria, described as “terror supporting” by Washington due to its support for Hizbollah and Hamas. The point is: we’re moved by the people’s protest in all of them.

But in the Egyptian case, Washington stood with Mubarak up to the last minute. Joe Biden refused to even call the Egyptian president a “dictator.” Indeed he called him a longstanding ally of the U.S. and Israel. The U.S. has called upon Yemen’s president to leave office, but not very loudly, and only in order to speed up a “transition” to another leader who will maintain a relationship universally unpopular with Yemenis. In Libya, the U.S. has backed a complex opposition movement (without even, by the admission of top officials, understanding its composition, which likely includes pro-al-Qaeda forces) with ferocious violence, largely due to French, British and Italian prodding. In Syria, while maintaining the traditional disparagement of the Assad family, it has stopped short of demanding Bashir Assad’s ouster (largely because Israel doesn’t see a better negotiating partner on the horizon). “President Assad,” lectured Obama, “now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.” (How generous to allow the Syrian leader the prospect of survival!)

Libya’s leader Muammar Qaddafi is another matter. He is, according to Obama, the “most extreme example” of a dictator, who would have slaughtered the people of Benghazi had the west not intervened. But the casualties of the Libyan uprising (really, a civil war with armed combatants on both sides) were apparently in the hundreds at the time that French president Sarkozy began insisting on western military intervention in March. And Libyan government forces have not engaged in wholesale slaughter since (even when deployed against what is now a rival army). If Qaddafi is a bloody dictator, he is no more “an extreme example” of such than Ali Saleh or Bashir Assad. He is merely depicted as such to justify the U.S. “join[ing in] an international coalition to intervene.”

In his speech Obama had to say something about Bahrain, knowing that many are noting the apparent hypocrisy involved in the U.S. bombing Libya to “help” people in rebellion while standing aside as the al-Khalifa family slaughters demonstrators in Manama. Making no reference to the Saudi-GCC troops, he simply declared, “Bahrain is a longstanding partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law. Nevertheless, we have insisted both publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and we will — and such steps will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. (Applause.) The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.”

But after this litany of criticisms of friends and foes alike, Obama adds, “we cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people, and we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to try to impose regime change by force — no matter how well-intentioned it may be.” Thus he keeps all options open. If people ask, “Why not establish a no-fly zone over Bahrain, or Yemen, or Syria, too?” he can say, “There’s only so much we can do…”

6. Iran Remains Evil

Obama made it clear that Iran (the only non-Arab Middle Eastern state he mentioned) is the worst problem in the region. It has abetted the crackdown on protesters in Syria, “tak[ing] advantage of the turmoil there.” It has encouraged the Shiite majority in Bahrain to rise up. (Why shouldn’t it, if the U.S. is now saying it “hears the voices” of the protesters?) It has suppressed peaceful protests at home. It has an “illicit” nuclear program. There will be no change in U.S. relations with Iran.

7. Israel Remains a Dear Friend

Finally, Obama turned to Israel, and to “another cornerstone of our approach to the region, [which] relates to the pursuit of peace.” (That is, another cornerstone along with “countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons [and] securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region”–from someone presumably threatening it.)

For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region. For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them.

Of course, most analysts of the Middle East recognize that the single biggest regional problem is the problem of Palestine. It would have been nice if Obama had reviewed the history.

In 1948 700,000 refugees were created as recent settlers, overwhelmingly from Europe, carved out a state for themselves by force. The settlers could claim some sort of legitimacy, on the basis of the UN plan for Jewish-Arab partition submitted the year before. That plan was supported by just 54% of then-UN members. (The settlers could even have cited the 1922 League of Nations plan for a Jewish state including Samaria and Galilee, which Israeli lawyers are mentioning in their response to Palestinians’ efforts to win UN acceptance of Palestinian statehood.) But during the 1948 war they obtained far more land than apportioned in the UN plan. Jews, then 33% of the population of Palestine, were given 56% of the land by the 1947 plan. This was rejected by the entire Arab world (as well as Iran, Pakistan, India, Ethiopia, Greece, and Cuba) as unfair. After the settlers began seizing by force even lands accorded the Palestinians—committing atrocities in Deir Yassin in April 1948 and elsewhere–Egypt and Syria intervened. The Arabs were defeated, as 80% of the Palestinian population fled, and Zionist settlers wound up with both the land allotted them in the UN plan–plus 60% of that which had been allotted the Palestinians. This is what we call “the 1967 borders.” Most states if only for pragmatic reasons have come to recognize it as the legitimate state of Israel. But many people around the world question its legitimacy given the brutal manner through which it was created.

In 1967, Israel struck at Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, claiming a “pre-emptive” war was necessary to prevent an Egyptian attack. But as Israeli Defense Force chief-of-staff Yitzak Rabin himself recognized, the Egyptian troop movements depicted as a casus belli were in fact defensive in nature. (One recalls the German invasion of Poland in 1939, to prevent a Polish invasion of the Reich; or the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, to prevent a “mushroom cloud over New York City.) In any event, the Israelis easily completed their conquest of Palestine, seizing the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt (along with the Sinai Peninsula) and the Golan Heights from Syria. (The Sinai was returned to Egypt as part of a peace agreement in 1979.) The UN has consistently condemned the Israeli occupation of these lands, while the Zionists claim they must remain under occupation for defensive reasons–and/or because God anointed the Jews as His Chosen People and gave them the Promised Land (so no normal, this-worldly, rational discussion of Palestinian rights is necessary).

So far as the latter argument is concerned, the Zionists are shrewdly aware that fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. (whose religious viewpoints they find absurd) are their best allies. Obama as a savvy U.S. politician must thus always privilege Israeli pain and fear, avoiding the issue of why there has been so much hatred of the settler-state from its inception.

“…the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them.” What should Arab children be taught? The Zionist version of history, according to which Palestinians left of their own volition–needlessly and foolishly–in 1948, coaxed by anti-Semitic Arab leaders, and that in so doing they forever relinquished their right to return? That the Palestinians aren’t really indigenous to Palestine, but rather that modern Jews (in fact a complex gene pool with dubious relation to the Judeans affected by the Diaspora nineteen centuries ago) have an inherent right to obliterate Arab towns to revive some dream of an ancient kingdom, claiming it’s their “birthright” to do so?

“For Palestinians,” the president conceded, in an attempt to appear the sensitive, honest broker, the Arab-Israel conflict “has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own… For over two years, my administration has worked with the parties and the international community to end this conflict, building on decades of work by previous administrations.”

The fact is, Obama soon after becoming president politely requested that Israel freeze settlement activity on the West Bank, where over 270,000 Israeli Jews have settled illegally since 1967. “”He wants to see a stop to settlements,” declared Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in May 2009. “Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions.” That was a simple call to obey international law, and repeated UN resolutions. It was also a plea to make U.S.-assisted negotiations with the Palestinians–long frozen due to precisely this issue–possible. But Obama’s stance produced intensely hostile reactions from the Israel Lobby and many U.S. politicians, who accused him of “betraying” the Jewish state, which in their minds ought to be spared any pressure or criticism while the U.S. subsidizes it to the tune of $ 3 million per year.

The Israeli government headed by Binyamin Netanyahu ignored the request, and indeed used the occasion of U.S. officials’ visits to announce the expansion of the settlements, even angering such longtime supporters of Israel as Vice President Joe Biden. In the end (September 2009), Obama blinked. “It’s time to move on,” he declared, raising the question how peace talks can move on when one side massively supported (and rapturously eulogized) by his administration insists on undermining any premise for their continuation. There has been no interruption of U.S. aid as the settlers with widespread support among the Israeli public relentlessly expand, making the “two-state solution” promoted by the U.S. impossible.

Obama did note in passing: “Yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues.”

(He might have added, “…with tacit U.S. support. My own administration, having publicly demanded that Israel freeze settlement expansion, was met with a firm ‘No’ from Mr. Netanyahu and indeed humiliated. Still, we continue the flow of aid to the Jewish State and assist and protect the settlement program in other ways. For example, when the UNSC last February moved to pass a resolution condemning the illegal Israeli settlements in occupied territories and demanded an immediate halt to all settlement building–a resolution supported by all the other 14 other Security Council and indeed, reflecting official U.S. policy–I had Ambassador Susan Rice veto it. As she said at the time, while my administration agrees with the entire world ‘about the folly and illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,’ we considered it ‘unwise’ for the U.N. to attempt to resolve key issues between the Israelis and Palestinians.”)

When the U.S. wants legitimacy for attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya it seeks UN approval. But Israel must always be protected from UN judgments by U.S. vetoes. The unfairness and hyprocrisy offends Arabs everywhere, and (again) one reason Tunisia’s Ben Ali as well as Hosni Mubarak were so unpopular was because of their cordial relations with Israel. (From the mid-90s to 2000, Tunisia was one of the very few Arab countries with de facto diplomatic relations with Israel; these were suspended at the beginning of the Second Intifada in response to popular indignation at Israeli actions. Still, Israel preferred Ben Ali to the regime that’s succeeded him. Binyamin Netanyahu’s government now complains about “the worsening of the Tunisian authorities’ and society’s attitude toward the Jewish community” while urging Tunisia’s 1,500 Jews to emigrate to Israel.)

“Palestinians have walked away from talks.” (Obama might have added, “…in protest of the Israelis’ refusal to stop their illegal settlements on Palestinian land, in accordance with the basic agreements that paved the way to the ‘peace process’ in the first place.”)

“The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on and on and on, and sees nothing but stalemate. Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now. I disagree. At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever. That’s certainly true for the two parties involved. For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure.”

In other words, even if you think that the settler-state was created by terror (as some Jewish Israeli historians acknowledge) it is “legitimate.” It is not a matter of opinion, like one’s view of (say) South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Kosovo or Northern Cyprus. The U.S. with Israel demands that all accept that legitimacy (or be accused to “teaching hatred” to their children).

“Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.”

In other words, even having realized that Israel isn’t serious about ever withdrawing from the West Bank, and that the U.S. is unwilling to challenge Israel’s inexorable expansion, the Palestinian Authority should abandon their recent move (an act of desperation, really) to acquire UN recognition for a Palestinian state. No matter that practically every other country except the U.S. is sympathetic to this idea, and it has been endorsed by the Arab League and a number of Latin American and European countries. The world is exasperated with Israeli intransigence. If UN recognition won’t confer de facto sovereignty on the occupied territories, it will at least, as Obama fears, further isolate a country already the object of countless UN resolutions condemning its actions. In most cases, the U.S. ambassador was the only one to abstain, and of course in many instances the only one to veto a resolution. In any case, the Palestinian’s immediate objective is indeed to isolate Israel, while the U.S. insists (almost as a religious cause) to shield it from international condemnation.

“Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.”

Hamas, the popular political party that overwhelmingly won the 2008 Palestinian election, has in fact committed to and observed repeated cease-fires, deliberately broken by Israel. It has even indicated its willingness to accept a Palestinian state outside Israel’s 1967 borders. Israel has responded by punishing the people on the Gaza Strip for voting Hamas into office by creating what the Vatican’s foreign minister has called a “big concentration camp.” Hamas might be considered a “terrorist” organization by the U.S. State Department, which maintains an entirely arbitrary list of such groups, and it may have pressured the E.U. after many years to accept this definition, but such nations as Russia, Turkey, and Switzerland disagree, and the UN does not accept the categorization. Fatah for its part has indeed accepted Israel’s right to exist, although Netanyahu has upped the ante by insisting that everyone in the world accept Israel, which is 75% Jewish, and with an inevitably growing non-Jewish population, as a “Jewish state.” (This is code for saying we must all accept that Israel must always be 51% or more Jewish–rather like asking the world to agree to U.S. must always have a white majority. There is no way Palestinians can accept that, and that is the point: to make negotiations for peace, and for two states, impossible.)

“As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values.”

What does this mean? That U.S. citizens, like Israelis, are overwhelmingly of European background? That is certainly true. Shared values? An apparent allusion to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Ten Commandments etc. But Islam grew out of that tradition, too. Islamic civilization gave Americans, Israeli Jews and the entire world an extraordinary cultural legacy including algebra, while some of the greatest Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides (1135-1204) flourished in the Arab world. The “values” of (most) Christians and Jews anywhere are possibly more similar to those of (most) Muslims than to those of adherents of non-“Abrahamic” religions.

But do “we” really share Israeli values? There is a shocking amount of racism in Israeli society. There is here too, but do half of our school children disdain to study alongside people of an ethnic group other than their own? One poll, taken by Tel Aviv University researchers last year, found that 49.5% of Israeli Jewish high school students want to deny Israeli Arabs the same rights as Jews enjoy. A 2007 poll by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel showed that two-thirds of Israeli teens believe Arabs to be “less intelligent, uncultured and violent.” 50% of Israelis responding to the poll said they would not live in the same building as Arabs, and would not befriend, or allow their children to befriend Arabs or let Arabs into their homes. Does the first African-American president sincerely believe we’re so similar?

“Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums.” Why, one must ask, when virtually nobody else–including those sincerely committed to Israel’s security–stands against criticism when criticism’s due?

Obama concluded, “Precisely because of our friendship, it’s important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace…. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.” (The one nice thing about this passage is that it implies that Israeli democracy remains a dream, not an obtained reality. But that’s probably a slip-up on the president’s part. I can imagine him answering a press conference question: “Certainly I didn’t mean to question the fact that Israel’s a democracy, indeed, the only democracy in the Middle East…” because this is an article of faith among the U.S. political class that must never be questioned.)

“Now, ultimately, it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them — not by the United States; not by anybody else.” (Wouldn’t it be best to add: “I could try to cut off some aid to you, but my hands are tied by the Lobby?”)

Then came the “controversial” sentence:

The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.

This is of course consistent U.S. policy, but has not been stated so clearly in recent years, and in the context of a “major policy speech” seems a signal that Obama wants to assert it more vigorously. The Arab Spring, by denying Israel its Egyptian partner Hosni Mubarak, has changed the situation. (Should anyone doubt the intimacy of Mubarak and the Israel elite, one of his last phone calls immediately before resigning his post was to Israeli Knesset member Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, to whom he complained about the “misguided” U.S. support for “democracy.”)

Obama asserted, “The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.” But he added it must be a “non-militarized state.” In other words, Israel can remain a nuclear state, with 190,000 soldiers active duty and over half a million reservists. But to protect its security, its future, theoretical neighboring state must be the only non-militarized state in Europe, Africa or Asia (outside of Liechtenstein, pop. 35,000, and Vatican City).

The president deplored what the new regime in Egypt and people throughout the Arab world in flux have welcomed: the agreement between Fatah and Hamas. This “raises,” according to Obama, “profound and legitimate questions for Israel: How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?”

One might as well ask: How can Palestinians negotiate with a party that has shown its hostility to the concept of a Palestinian state, with all normal features of a state, that makes excuses at every interval to avoid negotiations while creating “facts on the ground,” that continuously relies on religious mythology to press its claims and generate sympathy among the U.S. electorate, and spends hundreds of millions to buy Congressmen’s support? Israel’s ruling Likud Party does not recognize Palestine’s right to exist as an independent state.

Towards the end of the speech, in another effort to appear the honest broker, Obama said the following: “But I’m convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past. We see that spirit in the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas, who helped start an organization that brought together Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones. That father said, ‘I gradually realized that the only hope for progress was to recognize the face of the conflict.’ We see it in the actions of a Palestinian who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza. ‘I have the right to feel angry,’ he said. ‘So many people were expecting me to hate. My answer to them is I shall not hate. Let us hope,’ he said, ‘for tomorrow.’”

Does he not recall that the entire U.S. political class while routinely denouncing Hamas as terrorist killers, positively cheered on the 2008-2009 Israeli blitzkrieg against Gaza? And that at the time as president-elect he said nothing?

Finally: “There’s no straight line to progress, and hardship always accompanies a season of hope. But the United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves.”

Hope again! Hope and change! And delusion!

The U.S.A. was founded by white planters and merchants who believed that some people should govern themselves. They by and large believed they themselves had a right to enslave certain others, and to remove native peoples beyond the Mississippi. The U.S. has always been ruled by men who deny others the right to govern themselves, whether in annexed regions of Mexico (1840s), or Hawai’i (1898), or the Philippines (1898), or the Caribbean (1898, etc.), or Iran (1954), or Vietnam… the list is endless. The policy of “promoting reform” is just a cover for more intervention, and more sabotaging of hopes. The people of the Middle East can have little hope for change in U.S. policy.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Gary.