Commentary

Unhappiness at President Obama's UN Speech

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

In his speech at the United Nations last week, President Barack Obama made clear what everyone in his administration had already signaled: that the U.S. government would exercise its veto power at the UN Security Council to thwart any efforts in favor of a Palestinian state. In the Middle East region, where hopes for a change in U.S. policy toward the Palestinian people were high after Obama’s election in 2008, the speech was received with a mixture of indignation and sadness. Even in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showered the U.S. president with praise for the latter’s support, few commentators had anything positive to say about the move.

In an op-ed for Asharq Al-Awasat, Tariq Alhomayed called Obama’s speech “a bankrupt speech, laden with contradictions easy for the average observer, let alone a political specialist, to clearly identify, whether about the Arab situation or the Palestinian cause. While President Obama paid tribute to the awakening Arab street, he also stressed the importance of the security of Israel. This is strange, for if Obama recognizes that the Arabs are yearning for freedom and democracy, and declares that his country is standing with them, i.e. the Arabs calling for freedom, then how can Obama denounce the Palestinians’ demanding their own state through the United Nations? Why is freedom deemed to be an entitlement for all Arabs and Israelis, whilst it is denied to the Palestinians?”

In the Occupied Territories, the Hamas-backed Al-Qassam published an article by Khalid Amayreh who asserted, “Obama’s UN speech is unjust, immoral and unprincipled…., probably appropriate for an opportunistic politician who sacrifices honesty, morality, and basic ethics for the sake of making some momentary profit here or there…. Obama's excessive praise of Israel caricatured an insecure president that fears telling the truth, a leader that shakes at the very thought of uttering the ‘wrong words’ even when these wrong words happen to represent the heart, soul and essence of the truth….With all honesty and bitterness, such a leader won't be able to make peace in the Middle East, even if he remains at the White House fifty more years. What is the point of being a president when one betrays his conscience in order to please and appease the forces of evil and pressure groups around him?”

Hinting at the dichotomy between what Barack Obama the candidate and Barack Obama the president would do, on Al Jazeera Robert Grenier, a former US official, called the occasion “the humiliation of Barack Obama…. It is one thing to have to sacrifice principle in the face of political reality. All politicians are forced to do so at various points. But it is another to do so in a highly public manner, to have to mouth patent falsehoods in one-on-one meetings with fellow world leaders who know better and who will think less of you as a result. This is what lies in store for President Obama in New York, and he knows it.... [A]t some point, when the president is alone with his briefing book in New York, it is going to strike him. He will feel a tightening in his chest, and he will have an urge to pick up this plastic-bound tome to craven political expediency and hurl it at someone, and then to walk out and say what he really thinks.”

The notion that politics had much to do with Obama’s decision to veto the request for statehood was also highlighted in an op-ed for Al Arabiya by Bernd Debusmann, who saw the move as “pandering to Israel” anticipating next year’s presidential elections. On that count, Debusman believes “the president just won seals of approval from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and the U.S. lobby that usually reflects their views. If the elections, as some predict, include a contest on who loves Israel most, Obama can use their praise to good effect. How much it will contribute to his legacy is another matter. The plaudits came in response to Obama’s address to the United Nations on Sept. 21....[I]f it does emerge as a campaign topic, Obama can always wave the “badge of honor” awarded him by Netanyahu, to show that he is no different from a long line of American presidents much closer to Israel than to the Palestinians.”

Uri Avnery, commenting in the Palestinian daily Al Amin, was even more critical: “The language expressive and elegant. The arguments clear and convincing. The delivery flawless. A work of art. The art of hypocrisy. Almost every statement in the passage concerning the Israeli-Palestinian issue was a lie, a blatant lie. The speaker knew it was a lie, and so did the audience. It was Obama at his best, Obama at his worst. Being a moral person, he must have felt the urge to vomit. Being a pragmatic person, he knew that he had to do it, if he wanted to be re-elected. In essence, he sold the fundamental national interests of the United States of America for the chance of a second term.... Obama got paid immediately afterwards, within the hour. Netanyahu sat down with him in front of the cameras and gave him enough quotable professions of love and gratitude to last for several election campaigns.”

But even in Israel, most of the commentary, even if complementary of President Obama’s decision, saw through the real motivations underlying that decision. Yitzhak Benhorin writes on Yedioth Ahronoth, for example, “That’s what happens when an American president struggles in the polls during an election year and is being slammed by Republican candidates who issue declarations commensurate with Israel’s Right. After the Greater Israel-style statements of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, all that Barack Obama could do at this time is to toe Likud’s line. Benjamin Netanyahu would not have written a better speech about a small state surrounded by enemies, and Obama would not have delivered this speech had his campaign not faced difficulties in fundraising among Jews and had he not feared that he could lose Florida and Pennsylvania, where the Jewish vote plays a significant role.”

A similar sentiment is expressed in the same Israeli daily by Orly Azoulay, who believes Obama misread the Middle East political landscape: “When President Obama will be asked to raise his hand and impose a veto on the Palestinians’ request to recognize their state, he will in fact be voting against himself and against everything he believed in from the day he entered office....Obama meant well, but failed in the execution. Nobody promised him a rose garden in the Middle East, yet nobody prepared him for the rules of play prevalent in the grand bazaar....The president thought that ultimately wisdom would win out, yet wisdom lost. Obama lost along with it, and all of us lost as well.”

 


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