Friday, June 18, 2010

Anniversary of Obama's Cairo speech: Promises unfulfilled

Published in The Daily Star
June 19th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

In his Cairo speech on June 5th last year, President Obama had raised a great deal of hope and expectations among Muslims that his administration would make sincere attempts to address their concerns. Instead he has sent more troops to Afghanistan and has decided to win the war against terror, primarily militarily. In Iraq, there was an election that was heralded to be a major step towards establishing democracy. But three months have gone by and still a government has not been formed and though conflicts, deaths and suicide bombings have declined, Iraq is far from being a safe country. President Obama seems to be following the script of his predecessor.

The Muslims have been deeply hurt by the West's indifference to Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian land. During eight years of President Bush, the Palestinian problem was almost forgotten while USA and its western allies pursued the war on terror in Afghanistan following 9/11 and the WMD under false pretext in Iraq. Unfortunately, while the war on terror has still not been won, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have lost their lives as collateral damage. The Muslim world hoped that President Obama would bring the focus back on Palestine and win the war on terror by means other than military to convince them that his administration is sincere in reaching out to them. In his inspiring Cairo address, President Obama had correctly identified the Palestinian issue to be at the heart of Muslim anger on the West. Yet Palestinian miseries have worsened since he came to office with 1.5 million of them blockaded in Gaza by Israel for last three years, cut off from the rest of the world, to restrict Hamas from gaining access to weapons. Israel has arrogantly continued building new settlements on Palestinian land. In fact, when the US belatedly sent Vice President Joe Biden to re-open the proximity talks to resolve the Palestinian problem in March this year as an intermediary between Palestine and Israel, the Israeli Government announced that it would allow new settlements in West Bank and in East Jerusalem that Palestinians want to be the capital of the Palestinian state. The White House cancelled the scheduled visit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, angered by the Israeli snub. The visit took place soon afterwards and on that visit, Netanyahu was welcomed by President Obama as if nothing had happened and he also addressed a joint session of Congress and was hailed as a hero! The proximity talks have re-started last month but the prospect of a breakthrough is bleak.

The Muslim world's disappointment with the Obama administration hit a new depth of despair by the raid in the international water on a Turkish flotilla on May 31st that resulted in the death of 9 Turkish citizens and the US response. The six ships named Free Gaza Flotilla were carrying humanitarian assistance consisting cement, wheel chairs, paper, and water purification systems for Gaza to break a catastrophic, man-made humanitarian crisis created by the illegal Israeli blockade. The Israeli attack was terribly flawed. Their commandos killed the men in international waters. Its claim that those who organized the flotilla had connections to Al Qaeda was also trashed as facts about the attack became known. It was revealed that the 700 activists in the flotilla included nationals of many countries including 11 Americans of whom one is a former Ambassador, three German parliamentarians, journalists, two Israel Knesset members, etc. None had any connection to what Israel termed as terrorists.

The attack instantly caused indignation worldwide. Noble Prize winning Elders Group that includes Nelson Mandela called the attack “completely inexcusable”. A statement issued by the Group, which was launched in 2007 to try solving world's intractable problems, said: “This tragic incident should draw the world's attention to the terrible sufferings of Gaza's 1.5 million people, half of whom are children under 18.” They called the Gaza blockade as “one of the world's greatest human rights violations”. The UN Secretary General asked Israel to provide a “full explanation” and described the Gaza blockade “counter- productive, unsustainable and wrong.” 21 European nations, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa condemned Israel for its murderous attack.

In the face of worldwide condemnation, the Obama administration's reaction helped take some of the heat off Israel. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs did not go beyond re-iterating the UN resolution that condemned the loss of life without holding Israel responsible. In fact, the US did a lot of arm-twisting for adoption of that muted UN resolution that made no direct condemnation of Israel or a call for an international investigation and weakened the demand to end the blockade of Gaza. President Obama talked with Prime Minister Netanyahu over phone to reschedule the latter's visit to White House that he himself cancelled abruptly after the attack on the flotilla. The President expressed “deep regret” over the raid but did not hold Israel responsible nor did he, like the rest of the world, condemn Israel.

The strength of the Jewish influence in USA's politics was driven home very recently when a comment on Israel ended the illustrious career of Helen Thomas, an 89-year-old legendary journalist in Washington. On the Jewish Heritage Day Celebration at White House, a Jewish Rabbi asked Helen Thomas to comment on Israel. She replied laughingly that they “should get the hell out of Palestine”. The Rabbi asked her for “better comments” to which she said that Palestinians have lived for centuries in the land now occupied by Israel whose people should go back to their homes in Germany, Poland, America and everywhere else. The comments created an uproar and condemnation from the Jewish lobby and their supporters. Helen Thomas apologized for the comments but the uproar did not diminish. The White House rebuked her; Nine Speakers Inc., a full service entertainment agency representing people across the world in literature, films, etc, dropped her as a client and a Maryland School cancelled an invitation to her as a commencement Speaker, forcing her to resign. Interestingly, the majority of Jews who now live in Israel are post Second World War migrants predominantly from Poland, Germany, and America and “elsewhere” while the Palestinians who have been driven out of Israel and made refugees in the West Bank have lived there for many hundreds of years till Israel was created in 1948.

President Obama called the remarks of Helen Thomas who is of Arab origin, “offensive” and “out of line” and welcomed her decision to resign. For a nation that takes pride in itself for upholding all forms of freedom and has taken upon its shoulders the responsibility to spread this idea of freedom to the rest of the world, the reactions were quite contradictory. With such consideration to the sentiments of the Jews, it would be unrealistic to expect that President Obama would be able to take the stand necessary to make Israel negotiate with the Palestinians for a just resolution of the Palestinian problem. Without that, the West and the Muslim world would continue to drift apart.

There is one positive outcome from the flotilla incident for the Palestinian cause. It has shifted strategic balance in Middle East against Israel as Turkey withdrew its Ambassador to Tel Aviv amidst intense anger towards Israel and the US. Egypt that backed the Gaza blockade and earned the wrath of Muslim nations lifted the blockade on its border with Gaza.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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