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Signs of Hope in President Obama’s Cairo Speech?

June 5th, 2009

Yesterday President Obama delivered his much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt. He devoted a considerable portion of his speech to Palestine/Israel, the transcript of which we include at the end of this message.

Below, we provide an analysis of the President’s remarks, followed by action steps that you can take to help translate this speech into tangible change on U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine.

Empathy for the Palestinian narrative.
In his speech, President Obama broke new ground for a sitting U.S. President by displaying considerable empathy for the Palestinian narrative. He recognized that the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people is “undeniable.” He acknowledged the “daily humiliations” of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. And he made mention of Palestinian refugees who for more than 60 years have “endured the pain of dislocation” and who “wait in refugee camps…for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead,” although unfortunately he fell short of acknowledging the Palestinian refugees’ internationally-recognized right of return. Nevertheless, President Obama summed it up by calling the situation for Palestinians “intolerable.”

Also noteworthy was the President’s implicit comparison of the struggle for Palestinian rights with the struggle against slavery and racial discrimination in the United States and against apartheid in South Africa. Although this comparison came within the context of a one-sided call for Palestinians to abandon violence (with no concomitant call for Israel to abandon its much more deadly violence against Palestinians), by mentioning these struggles it appears that President Obama views the Palestinians as an oppressed people whose plight is similar to those of other oppressed peoples, a true departure in thinking for a sitting U.S. President.

Two-State Framework. In Cairo, President Obama reiterated his antidote for this “intolerable” situation: “The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.” While the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation takes no position on whether there should be a two-state or one-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we do raise critical concerns about whether a U.S.-backed two-state solution will lead to a just and lasting peace based on human rights, international law, and equality.

While President Obama ratcheted up his critique of Israeli settlements during his Cairo speech, stating that the United States does not accept their “legitimacy,” this formulation still falls short of President Jimmy Carter’s stance deeming Israeli settlements “illegal,” as they are according to the Fourth Geneva Convention. The President’s increasingly adamant calls for Israel to stop expanding settlements in conjunction with its obligations under the “road map” is certainly a positive step; however, he is still very far from demanding and exerting pressure on Israel to dismantle all of its illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a fundamental prerequisite if the two-state solution has any chance of success.

A two-state solution might meet some of the “legitimate aspirations” of Palestinians currently living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip. However, it is highly doubtful that such a solution would fulfill the “legitimate aspirations” of Palestinian citizens of Israel who suffer from institutionalized discrimination or Palestinian refugees whose plight, but not rights, the President recognized in his speech.

On the one hand, on the other. President Obama’s empathy with the Palestinian narrative and acknowledgment that both Israelis and Palestinians are “two peoples with legitimate aspirations” is certainly an advance over traditional U.S. discourse which over the decades has primarily portrayed Israel as an innocent victim and either downplayed or ignored Palestinian human and national rights. However, there is a danger that the “both sides” rhetoric—“It’s easy to point fingers,” and “if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth,” for example—President Obama employed obscures the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never been one of equals.

It has been and continues to be today a conflict of Israel, an apartheid state that institutionalizes discrimination against non-Jews, versus Palestinians, a people dispossessed of their homeland through ethnic cleansing. In the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, for the last 42 years it has been and continues to be a conflict of Israel, an Occupying Power defying international law and the Geneva Conventions, versus an Occupied People, the Palestinians who struggle daily to maintain their existence in the face of widespread and systematic human rights abuses by Israel.

Within this framework, it is intellectually dishonest for President Obama to ask Palestinians to give up violence without asking the same of Israel. (In fact, Palestinian civil society is engaging in nonviolent campaigns of boycott, divestment, and sanctions to advocate for their rights, a call which we support.) It is unrealistic and even cruel to ask Palestinians “to focus on what they can build” when Israel systematically destroys Palestinian civilian infrastructure and maintains a siege of the Gaza Strip under which Palestinians have difficulty importing pasta, much less necessary things like concrete to rebuild after Israel’s devastating attacks that left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead and thousands of buildings destroyed. President Obama must do more than just ask Israel “to take concrete steps to enable such progress” toward Palestinian economic opportunity; he must recognize instead that as long as Israel maintains its brutal occupation and siege of Palestinian territories, then Palestinian institution-building and economic development are impossible.

Where is the United States? Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of President Obama’s speech was his failure to acknowledge the destructive and biased role that the United States has played and continues to play today in perpetuating the “intolerable” situation he alluded to.

It’s not as if President Obama is incapable of recognizing and acknowledging U.S. mistakes. In other sections of his speech in Cairo, he candidly referred to the war on Iraq as a “war of choice” and honestly referenced the fact that the “
United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.”

Missing from his speech however was any similar recognition that U.S. policy has directly contributed to the impasse in Israel/Palestine. By providing Israel with more than $100 billion in economic and military aid since 1949 and by consistently vetoing UN resolutions to bring Israel into compliance with international law and human rights standards, the United States is the central player enabling Israel to continue its brutal treatment of the Palestinian people.

Also absent from the President’s speech was any hint that he is prepared to exert pressure on Israel to achieve his goals. While words are extremely important in setting frameworks for policy debates and while we should rightfully views certain aspects of President Obama’s speech as advances, rhetoric alone will not change the behavior of other nations.

To do so, the United States should use its leverage, and with Israel we have a lot of it. President Obama has requested $2.775 billion in military aid for Israel in his FY2010 budget request, which now is in front of the Appropriations Subcommittees on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.

This is where we come into the picture. We have the power to help take the shifting discourse on U.S. policy toward Palestine/Israel that we are witnessing and translate it into actual policy change.

Please take some time to read over and act on the ideas below on what you can do to organize and advocate with us to end military aid to Israel and help us bring about a profound change in policy. Together we can generate the political strength to help bring about the goal President Obama articulated yesterday in Cairo, a goal in which we believe:

“All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of the three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra -- (applause) -- as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, peace be upon them, joined in prayer.”


1. Send a personalized letter to the Members of Congress on the Appropriations Subcommittees with jurisdiction over military aid programs

Later this month, the Senate and House Appropriations Subcommittees on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs are likely to "mark-up" the President's FY2010 budget request, which includes $2.775 billion in military aid to Israel.

Join thousands of others who have already sent nearly 150,000 letters to these Members of Congress letting them know that you oppose the President's budget request and want to see military aid to Israel ended or, at the very minimum, conditioned on Israel achieving stated U.S. policy goals. 

To send your letter, please click here.

2. Get your organization to endorse our open letter to the Appropriations Subcommittees.

The US Campaign is organizing an open letter to the Appropriations Subcommittees opposing the President’s FY2010 budget request for $2.775 billion in military aid to Israel.
To date, more than 150 organizations have endorsed this letter. To read and endorse the letter (organizational endorsements only please), click here.

Check out the list of national organizations that have endorsed this open letter:

1. After Downing Street
2. American Jews for a Just Peace
3. American Muslims for Palestine
4. Code Pink Women for Peace
5. Council for the National Interest
6. Council on American-Islamic Relations
7. Episcopal Peace Fellowship
8. Fellowship of Reconciliation
9. Friends of Sabeel—North America
10. Global Exchange
11. Gold Star Families for Peace
12. Grassroots International
13. Interfaith Peace-Builders
14. Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions—USA
15. Jewish Voice for Peace
16. Latino American Dawah Organization
17. Middle East Children's Alliance
18. Middle East Research and Information Project
19. Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation
20. Muslim Student Association West
21. National Benedictines for Peace
22. National Immigrant Solidarity Network
23. National Lawyers Guild
24. New Internationalism Project, Institute for Policy Studies
25. Palestine Aid Society
26. Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
27. Progressive Democrats of America
28. Student/Farmworker Alliance
29. Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East
30. United for Peace and Justice
31. United Muslims of America
32. US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation
33. Veterans For Peace
34. War Times/Tiempo de Guerras
35. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom—U.S. Section

To read the full text of the open letter and to have your organization endorse it, please click here.

3. Spread the word about our campaign.

Copy and paste the graphic to the left and link it here and then place it on your website, blog, social networking site, and email signature.

4. Sign up to organize to challenge military aid to Israel in your community.

Receive an organizing packet in the mail from us with postcards, petitions, flyers, fact sheets, stickers, and an educational DVD—everything you need to educate and organize people in your community to challenge military aid to Israel. Since February
2007, we’ve sent out more than 1,200 organizing packets to volunteers in more than 600 cities and 48 states (yep, still waiting on Nevada and North Dakota). Check out the amazing Google map of all of our organizers below and sign up to join them today by clicking here.

View Challenge Military Aid to Israel in a larger map

5. Offset your tax contribution to Israeli military occupation.

Although Tax Day has come and gone, it’s not too late for you to make a statement that you don’t want your tax dollars going to fund Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians. According to our research, Israel killed more than 3,000 innocent Palestinians, including more than 1,000 children, during the Bush Administration, often with U.S. weapons.

We’re estimating that in FY2010, each individual tax payer will on average be giving $17.75 in military aid to Israel. Offset your tax contribution to Israeli military occupation and human rights abuses by making a tax deductible contribution to us by clicking on the logo below.

For each contribution of $17.75, we will send you some of these “Yes, We Can…End U.S. Military Aid to Israel!” stickers.

Offset the tax contribution of just five people or more ($88.75 or more) and we’ll send you the stickers and a copy of the award-winning documentary Occupation 101.

Offset your tax contribution of military aid to Israel today by clicking on the icon to the left.

Remarks by the President on a New Beginning, Cairo University, June 4, 2009

The second major source of tension that we need to discuss is the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world.

America's strong bonds with Israel are well known.  This bond is unbreakable.  It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust.  Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich.  Six million Jews were killed -- more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today.  Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful.  Threatening Israel with destruction -- or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews -- is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people -- Muslims and Christians -- have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.  For more than 60 years they've endured the pain of dislocation.  Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead.  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.  (Applause.)

For decades then, there has been a stalemate:  two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive.  It's easy to point fingers -- for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought about by Israel's founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond.  But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth:  The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.  (Applause.)

That is in Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest, and the world's interest.  And that is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience and dedication that the task requires.  (Applause.)  The obligations -- the obligations that the parties have agreed to under the road map are clear.  For peace to come, it is time for them -- and all of us -- to live up to our responsibilities.

Palestinians must abandon violence.  Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed.  For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation.  But it was not violence that won full and equal rights.  It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding.  This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia.  It's a story with a simple truth:  that violence is a dead end.  It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus.  That's not how moral authority is claimed; that's how it is surrendered.

Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build.  The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have to recognize they have responsibilities.  To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel's right to exist.

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

And Israel must also live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society.  Just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be a critical part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress. 

And finally, the Arab states must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities.  The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems.  Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state, to recognize Israel's legitimacy, and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.

America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and we will say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs.  (Applause.)  We cannot impose peace.  But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away.  Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state.  It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.

Too many tears have been shed.  Too much blood has been shed.  All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of the three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra -- (applause) -- as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, peace be upon them, joined in prayer.  (Applause.)