Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Obama in Cairo

Palm Beach Gardens

In his much anticipated speech on June 4 in Cairo, what can President Obama say that is new, realistic and appropriate to this historic occasion? The speech of the US president will be watched, graded, dissected and interpreted by hundreds of millions of people, particularly by Muslims and Jews.

Neither side of the Arab-Israeli conflict is totally enamored with President Obama. While moderate Arabs hope that this new president must have something good in him because he is so different from G.W. Bush. Hard-line Arabs are not moved by an American president whom they see compromised by a political system which appears “wedded to Israel”.

Doubt about Obama in Israel is mounting also. While centrist Israelis give the benefit of the doubt to Obama, they are still worried that America may abandon the Zionist state as Washington tries to win the support of 1.3 billion Muslims in its conflicts in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

Speech writers must be thinking hard in drafting messages for the President that would revive the faltering Arab-Israeli peace process, appeal to both Arabs and Jews, and restore trust between America and the Muslim world.

As a guest of the region, President Obama must focus on Arab issues. He goes first to Saudi Arabia and then to Jordan on June 3rd. The next day he is Cairo. His Cairo speech must be mindful of Israeli opinion.

In addressing Arab concerns, he must acknowledge the depth of Palestinian suffering and the significance of Palestinian unity. In addressing Israeli concerns, he must stress security issues and continued American support.

In expressing compassion for Palestinians there is no need to worry about provoking Israelis. Israelis are quiet aware of the serious pain of displacement they have caused Palestinians. This is why you find the most powerful writers about Palestinian suffering in the Jewish community.

For Obama, the second important message is about Palestinian unity. Obama will find it difficult to deal with the issue of Palestinian unity since the US policy is unwittingly reinforcing their disunity by punishing one faction (Hamas) and rewarding another (Fateh). It is important for Obama to realize that Hamas has not lost the respect of the Arab street, and that its opponent, Fateh, is not very popular in the Arab and Muslim world. This is where Obama can score a strong point by reaching out to Hamas without blessing its controversial tactics.

If Obama could empathize with the struggle for Palestinian independence he will reach minds and hearts. But he could forcefully comment that the struggle for liberation must unify Palestinians, not separate them. For only a united Palestine can forge a just peace with Israel.

It is customary, for Americans who address the Middle East, whether they target Arabs or Israelis, to assure Israel that Washington remains its closest ally. In Cairo, the US President can explain that enhanced relations with Israel’s current adversaries would ultimately serve Israel’s security. For it is only through integration of Israel in its region will this unique state find permanent security.

In his Cairo speech, Obama needs not play down the special alliance which the US has had with Israel over half a century. It is important for Obama to explain that the special partnership that Israel has with America is a political phenomenon, rather than a religious alliance against Islam. The president can easily explain that the bond with Israel is based on shared values, ways of living and economic enterprise. As such, the close US relations with Israel are not threatened by parallel partnerships with the Arab and Muslim world. It is here where President Obama can appeal to religious leaders- both in the Arab world and in the West- to challenge them to contribute to inter-religious harmony. Obama is in a unique position to stress this point since his diverse and unusual background makes him the most credible source of inspiration for cross-cultural dialogue.

The US president goes to Cairo setting up high expectations in the moderate circles of the Arab world. What he can do is limited, given his congested domestic agenda, a skeptical Islamic world, a divided Palestinian leadership, a hard-line Israeli government, and a US Congress that is not sensitive to Palestinian demands.

The best message Obama can leave behind is his acknowledgment of the limitations he has in dealing with the problems he is addressing. If President Obama can show the same tolerance for Hamas that he shows for Iran, he would score a strategic point. If he sends a firm message to Netanyahu’s government without alienating the centrist Israelis and the American Jewish community, he would score another point.

Hopefully, his speech will contribute to the unity of Palestinians and positively impact the opinion of the mainline Jewish community. Both are critical for the achievement of peace in the Middle East and for reconciliation with Islam.

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