Wednesday, June 10, 2009

New Beginnings, New Policies?

By Brian Doyle
CNI Staff Writer

On June 4th President Obama took an important step in repairing US relations with the Muslim world in his speech at the University of Cairo. The President presented a kinder, gentler America, one knowledgeable and appreciative of Islamic culture and history.

Head on, Obama addressed the biggest sources of conflict between America and the Muslim world: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and America's blind support of Israel.

Obama made perhaps the clearest comments of any American President regarding the plight of the Palestinians, stating, “They endure the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”

The President also had strong words for Israel’s refusal to recognize the need for a Palestinian state:

“Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's,” said Obama “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

These remarks are welcome, but expected. Obama has previously stated his support for an independent Palestine and an end to settlements. In the Arab world, where people are so used to dissembling by their own government, as well as the US, the verdict on Obama is still out.

Beyond his statement of support for a Palestinian state, Obama offered few specifics, other than that the US would "align our policies with those who pursue peace." He refused to break with Israel, saying "America's strong bonds with Israel" are "unbreakable."

The Israeli government is making clear it wants nothing but a victor's peace, and has no intention of halting its settlement expansion, let alone sharing Jerusalem. A game of chicken between Obama and Netanyahu seems to be in the works, and Netanyahu will be marshalling the powerful forces of the Israel Lobby to his side, especially in congress.

As long as America's largesse of cash and guns continues flowing to Israel, Netanyahu will feel confident enough to ride out America's verbal scolding.

If Obama allows this to happen, his trip to Cairo will have been a waste of time. He will be seen the world over as a hypocrite beholden to Israel. The unique opportunity Obama has to make real change will be dashed. Many of the root causes of the violent extremism Obama so eloquently denounced will remain.

In his vitriolic response to Obama's speech, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei did get one thing right: improving America's image in the Muslim world "will not be achieved by talking, speech and slogans."

As President of the United States, Obama must make clear that however strong the ties between America and Israel are, he will always act in America's interest. If Israel still refuses to have constructive dealings with the Palestinians and continue their settlement expansions, it is their business. But, the United States should not continue to pay for Israel's defense in the conflicts that result from Israel's choices.

Just as Egypt and Jordan would lose their aid if they openly opposed and obstructed American aims (as happened to Jordan, our most stalwart Arab ally, in the first Gulf War), so should Israel. If Israel continues stalling on peace talks with the Palestinians and continues its settlement expansion, Obama should veto the appropriation of foreign aid to Israel. If it passes over his veto, he should impound the funds.

It is instructive to consider the lessons of the 1956 Suez Crisis, when America's other special relationship, the one with Britain, came into crisis.

That year, Britain, France, and Israel launched surprise invasion of Egypt in response to Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal. Despite America's cultural and historical ties to Britain and France's status as our oldest ally, America forced Britain, France and Israel to withdraw in humiliation. The Eisenhower administration took action against the three at the United Nations and threatened to attack the pound sterling by selling off US reserves of British currency.

No bonds between two countries are truly unbreakable, nor should sympathy and past friendship equal a blank check.

With his evenhanded remarks on Israel and Palestine, Obama is giving Israeli hardliners (and their Israel-first friends in the US) plenty of rope with which to hang themselves. Eisenhower would not let America's allies, however close and culturally dear, threaten America's interests. Barak Obama should do the same.