Obama shows he really means business

The US President’s Cairo speech indicates he wants action on curbing settlements

By Alex Brummer, June 11, 2009

Amid the British media’s blanket coverage of the Labour Party’s disintegration, few other stories have broken on to the front pages or into leader columns. An exception was President Obama’s much-hyped Cairo address. This even managed to unify those papers which cast a very critical eye over Israel’s actions in the Middle East with those that tend to take a more balanced view.

Only the right-wing Wall Street Journal, the English-language paper that consistently supports the Zionist cause, dismissed Obama’s line. Under the provocative headline, “Barack Hussein Bush”, it described what the American President had to say as “artfully repackaged versions of themes President Bush sounded with his freedom agenda”.

It was inevitable that, at some point, Obama would turn his focus from economic meltdown to the global stage, and the Middle East in particular. Israel can expect to face sustained pressure over settlements as part of the President’s effort to stitch together a wider regional peace.

Some of the content of the Cairo speech was predictable, given the President’s comments on Israeli settlements before, during and after Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington. Also predictable was the fact that the Middle Eastern dignitaries assembled in Cairo gave the loudest applause to the line: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”.

The Financial Times editorial argued that this, together with Obama’s implicit comparison of the “intolerable situation of the Palestinians under occupation with the struggles of African slaves in America and under apartheid in South Africa” was a signal to the “irredentist right” in Israel and supporters of Likud that they are dealing with someone in the US who means business. The normally Israel-friendly Murdoch-owned Times agreed this would not give any comfort to the Netanyahu government. The Times also noted that Obama had chosen to skirt around the issue of democracy — a George W Bush favourite — and instead sought to address “a clash of civilisations”.

The Guardian’s commentator on the speech, Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, was less impressed. She pointed out that halting settlements had been the “official policy” of every US administration. She wanted to see action “by cutting off funding for settlements and closing the tax loophole that allow US organisations to fund them”. The paper’s leading article was upbeat suggesting that “Mr Netanyahu will probably acquiesce to US demands” noting that, despite his tough talk, “he has done it before”. The Independent noted that Obama had some “uncomfortable things to say to Israel”.

By contrast, a report from Jerusalem in the same paper, suggested that Netanyahu was affronted. It claimed that Obama’s call ignored “secret” agreements between Israel and the Bush administration allowing settlement expansion within existing boundaries.

Obama’s rhetoric was carefully balanced, so that there was something for everyone. It included condemnation of Holocaust denial. This was directly aimed at President Ahmadinejad. But there was a message in this for Egypt, too, criticised by Robert Fisk in the Indy as a “police state”. The Shoah message was underlined by emotional TV images of the US President’s visit to Buchenwald, where he declared: “I will never forget what I have seen here.”

Obama has elevated the regional debate to a higher plane. The tougher task for him and his veteran Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is turning the rhetoric into hard diplomacy.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 4:17pm, June 11 2009