The real Obama ultimatum

The American President’s Cairo speech is more of a goad to the Palestinians than to Israel

By Geoffrey Alderman, June 11, 2009

Did Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4 signal a looming confrontation with the government of Israel?

As an example of political rhetoric, the speech was a tour-de-force. It confirmed — if confirmation was needed — that the US President is a great orator. It also confirmed the President as a risk-taker, and a courageous one.

For here was an American President, democratically elected, coming to what is a brutal north-African dictatorship, warning his audience that “suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away” and admonishing that “government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power… you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise.” Here was an American President speaking to an overwhelmingly Muslim audience about the need for religious tolerance and female equality.

All this — to say nothing of unambiguous strictures against the portrayal of crude and cruel stereotypes of Jews and Judaism in Arab media; equally unambiguous condemnation of Holocaust denial as “baseless, ignorant, and hateful”; and his stark declaration that “threatening Israel with destruction… is deeply wrong” — reflected tremendous nerve. But what grabbed the headlines in Barack Obama’s speech — even in British media understandably preoccupied with a domestic political crisis — was the section on peacemaking in the Middle East. And I have to say that some of my fellow journalists, perhaps distracted by our political crisis, seem not to have heard President Obama correctly.

What did the President actually say on this topic? First, he declared: “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable.” Then he made equally clear his view that the present situation of “the Palestinian people” is “intolerable” and that they were entitled to a state of their own, alongside Israel. But, he added, Palestinians “must abandon violence”. Then came the words that really caught the media’s attention: “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.”

Since these words were certainly carefully weighed and chosen, we need to be vigilant as to what they do and do not mean. The President did not refer to Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, but to “continued Israeli settlements”. The key word here is “continued”. It is the sustained and continuous building of settlements to which Barack Obama objects. He did not say that it is the policy of his administration to require the dismantling of every Jewish habitation and dwelling that currently thrives on the West Bank.
It is not difficult to understand why. In agreeing to the “Road Map” in 2003, Israel undertook to dismantle every settlement and “outpost” in Judea and Samaria that had been established after March 2001 without authorisation from the Israeli government, and not to construct new settlements.

As we have seen in recent days, the Netanyahu government has indeed begun removing such outposts, in spite of the fact that Arab obligations under the Road Map remain unfulfilled. But we should also note that, by virtue of an official exchange of letters between the American and Israeli governments in April 2004, the then American administration agreed that a final peace settlement would not oblige Israel to withdraw behind the armistice lines demarcated in 1949.
A great deal has been said about the “natural growth” of the existing, authorised Jewish communities on the West Bank. But the meaning of the April 2004 agreement — which the present US government has not repudiated — could not be clearer.

President Obama moved quickly to reassure Israel on this point. “We have differences,” an aide explained, “but believe we can find an arrangement that works.” Immediately following his Cairo address, the President called on the Palestinians to make “gestures” towards Israel, adding that they had to confront “tough choices”. The ball is now firmly in their court.

Last updated: 10:21am, June 24 2009