Saturday, 6 June 2009


1. Reactions from Gaza, Palestine – The Guardian

2. Khalid Mesha’al, Hamas leader on Obama’s speech

3. Hamas’ letter to Obama, inviting him to Gaza

4. Al-Quds Al-Arabi editor-in-chief Abdel Beri Atwan on Obama’s speech

5. Robert Fisk in The Independent

6. Ali Abunimah from Electronic Intifada

7. Sami Moubayed, Asia Times Online



Palestinians give guarded welcome to US president's appeal

for a fresh start on US-Muslim relations

Thursday 4 June 2009

In the Delice coffee shop in the heart of Gaza City

customers watched the speech in silence, some paying more

attention than others. But there was not a hint of applause

even when Obama talked about the "intolerable" situation

facing the Palestinians.

Many said they welcomed his words, but wanted to see action

on the ground.

"He touched our emotions, especially when he quoted from

the Qur'an," said Ehab Qishawi, a diplomat in the foreign

ministry in Gaza. "His words were good, but up to now we

haven't seen any policies on the ground. That's what we're

waiting for.

"We've had a lot of experience with the Americans and we

know that there are always red lines, especially when it

comes to the relationship with Israel."

Eyad Galaja, 28, felt the speech was balanced and gave "a

direct message to Israel to lift the siege on the

Palestinians". The Israeli blockade, which for the past two

years has prevented all exports and most imports to the

overcrowded strip, is the dominating feature of life in

Gaza, ruining the economy and putting many out of work.

Galaja, who works in the health ministry helping refer

patients for treatment abroad, said: "It is easy to say the

words, many presidents have given good speeches, but the

most important thing is the actions. The first step should

be to put pressure on Israel to lift the siege on Gaza,

open the commercial crossings and let goods come in."

Others have been more outspoken in their criticism of Obama

and the US administration. Asad Abu Shark, a professor of

linguistics at al-Azhar University, said he was wary of

hearing "sugar-coated language".

"Any American gesture in the right direction is welcome,"

he said. "If the Americans want an even-handed policy we

welcome that, but actions speak louder than words. We don't

want to live in hope until we die in despair."

He wants Washington to press Israel to end its blockade of

Gaza, end the occupation of the Palestinian territories and

allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in what

is now Israel.

Abu Shark, whose family are refugees from what is now the

Israel city of Ashqelon, believes in a one-state solution

to the Middle East conflict, with Israelis and Palestinians

living together as citizens of a single, binational state.

It is an idea that is gaining ground among Palestinians but

is strongly opposed by Israelis.

He was concerned about America's close relationships to the

leaders of the Arab world. "If America says they want

democracy and then he meets with dictators it means there

is a double standard," he said. "They should stop listening

to Arab rulers and start listening to the Arab public."

Hamas Leader to Obama: Deeds, Not Words

Helena Cobban*

DAMASCUS, Jun 5 (IPS) - The head of Hamas's political

bureau, Khaled Meshaal, gave a qualified welcome here

Thursday to the big speech that Pres. Barack Obama

addressed to the Muslim world in Cairo.

"The speech was cleverly written in the way it addressed

the Muslim world... and in the way it showed respect to the

Muslim heritage," Meshaal told IPS in an exclusive

interview. "But I think it's not enough. What's needed are

deeds, actions on the ground, and a change of policies."

His remarks came just hours after the speech, in a

wide-ranging interview in one of the Hamas leader's offices

here in the Syrian capital.

In the interview, Meshaal was friendly, quietly

self-confident, and thoughtful. He was firm in describing

his movement's positions, including when he restated that

he wants Hamas to be treated as "part of the solution and

not part of the problem".

He said he would be happy to meet Sen. George Mitchell, who

is expected to arrive in Damascus within the next two weeks

for the first time in his capacity as U.S. peace envoy.

"If Mitchell wants to meet me, we'll welcome him with a cup

of fine tea," Meshaal said with a smile.

This seems unlikely to happen in the near future. In the

Cairo speech, Obama restated the three preconditions that

Pres. George W. Bush and his allies in the international

"Quartet" defined in 2006 for Hamas, before any members of

the Quartet - the U.S. European Union, United Nations and

Russia - would agree to deal with it.

Meshaal expressed his displeasure with that part of Obama's

speech, noting that in the speech Obama also said he was

ready to start talks with Iran, "without preconditions on

the basis of mutual respect".

"Why is Obama ready to deal with Iran without

preconditions, but not us?" Meshaal asked. "Obama is using

some new words in his rhetoric, somewhat different from

what we heard from Bush, but under no circumstances will

preconditions be acceptable to us."

IPS asked Meshaal if he thought some approach like the one

Mitchell used to mediate an end to the conflict in Northern

Ireland in the 1990s might work in the Palestinian-Israeli

arena. In that effort, Mitchell defined a set of principles

regarding issues like abstention from violence and

commitment to democratic resolution of differences that he

applied equally to all sides in the conflict.

Meshaal replied, "Before we get into details, if Mitchell

wants to resolve the conflict here, he should talk to

everyone. The Northern Ireland principles were the result

of dialogue, not of defining preconditions."

That was when he extended the invitation to Mitchell to

come and meet over a cup of tea.

IPS asked whether - and how - he judged that Hamas's

longstanding desire to be seen as part of the solution

could be meshed with Mitchell's mission.

"Yes, we want to be part of the solution, but on the basis

of Palestinian rights," he said. "We have already said

we'll work for the success of any project that ends the

occupation of 1967, restores Palestinian rights, and grants

to Palestinians our right of self-determination."

"We need two things from Obama, Mitchell, the Quartet, and

the rest of the international community. Firstly, pressure

on Israel to acknowledge and grant these rights. The

obstacle to this is completely on the Israeli side.

Secondly, we need the international actors to refrain from

intervening in internal Palestinian affairs. You should

leave it to the Palestinians to resolve our differences

peacefully. You should respect Palestinian democracy and

its results," he said.

This latter was a reference to the hard-hitting campaign

that Israel, the U.S. and its allies have maintained

against Hamas ever since its candidates won a strong

victory in the Palestinian Authority (PA)'s parliamentary

elections in January 2006.

That campaign has included sustained efforts to

delegitimise the Hamas-led government that emerged from the

elections, attempts by Israel to assassinate the

government's leaders, including during Israel's recent

assault on Gaza, and the mission that U.S. Lt. Gen. Keith

Dayton has led in the West Bank to arm and train an

anti-Hamas fighting force loyal to the U.S.-supported

Palestinian leadership in Ramallah.

In his reaction to Obama's speech, Meshaal referred to the

U.S.'s role in this intervention, saying, "Rather than

sweet words from President Obama on democratisation, we'd

rather see the United States start to respect the results

of democratic elections that have already been held. And

rather than talk about democratisation and human rights in

the Arab world, we'd rather see the removal of Gen. Dayton,

who's building a police state there in the West Bank."

On Thursday, the tensions between Hamas and forces loyal to

the Ramallah-based Fatah Party leadership boiled over into

outright fighting in the West Bank town of Qalqilya that

left two Hamas fighters and one pro-Ramallah security

officer dead.

The deep divisions between Hamas and Fatah have also been

seen by many as a major obstacle to lifting Israel's

extremely damaging siege of Gaza, since Israel refuses to

open the crossing points into Gaza unless pro-Fatah people

control the Gaza side of the crossings.

Meshaal told IPS, "We're eager for the reconciliation with

Fatah. It's both a political and a humanitarian necessity.

But success is unlikely because of outside intervention."

Attempts to effect a reconciliation have been sporadically

underway in Cairo since February, but so far with no

success. IPS asked Meshaal if he thought Egypt was

unsuccessful as a mediator. "Egypt is not the problem," he

said. "The problem is not the mediator, but the outside


He also said that the continuing differences between Hamas

and Fatah should not be seen as posing an immoveable

obstacle to lifting the Gaza siege. He argued that if the

international community really wanted the Gaza siege lifted

it could find ways to do this.

Gaza has its longest land border with Israel, which also

controls its coastline. It also has a short land-border

with Egypt.

IPS pressed Meshaal on an issue of great concern to some

Israelis: whether, when he talks about "an end to Israeli

occupation" he is referring to Israel's occupation of the

West Bank and Gaza in 1967 or to the establishment of the

Israeli state in 1948 in what had previously been the area

of "Mandate Palestine."

He replied, "I have said I accept a Palestinian state if

Israel withdraws to the pre-1967 line. That doesn't annul

the historical fact of the Israeli occupation of 1948, but

Hamas and the other factions have all accepted this

solution of a Palestinian state at the 1967 line. But

there's still no Israeli acceptance of this, and no

international recognition of this outcome."

Asked whether the establishment of a Palestinian state in

just the areas occupied in 1967 would secure the end of the

Palestinian-Israeli conflict, he responded, "That state is

our demand today. When our people are free and have their

own state they will decide on this position."

In a discussion on the right of the numerous Palestinian

refugees from 1948, and their descendants, to return to

their ancestral homes and lands in what is now Israel, he

defined this as meaning that these refugees still have the

right to return to their "home villages or towns".

Hamas is often portrayed in the west as politically

inflexible, but on some key issues it has acted in a

realistic way that demonstrates its leadership's ability to

adapt its positions to changing realities on the ground.

One of these shifts was its move toward accepting the

concept of a Palestinian state in just the West Bank and

Gaza. Another was the decision it took in 2005 to

participate in the PA's parliamentary elections, though a

decade earlier it had opposed such participation.

Meshaal explained this latter shift by saying, "In 1996,

when we opposed the elections it was because they were seen

as derived from the Oslo Agreement, which we opposed. But

by 2006 Oslo was dead... Also, by 2005-2006 the PA had

become a real burden on the Palestinian people, with all

its corruption. The Palestinian people wanted Hamas to

enter the PA's institutions, to lift this burden from them,

and we had to be responsive to that."

In his reaction to Obama's speech, Meshaal welcomed the

change from the rhetoric used by Pres. Bush - though he

indicated it was not as far-reaching a change as he would

have wished. But he also stressed that rhetorical change is

not, on its own, nearly enough.

"Obama talked about the Palestinian state, but not its

borders," he said. "He didn't mention whether it should

comprise all the Palestinian land that was occupied in

1967, or just part of it, as Israel demands..."

"Yes, he spoke of an end to Israel's continuing settlement

activity; but can he really get them to stop? Without

addressing these issues, the speech remains rhetoric, not

so very different from his predecessor's."

Meanwhile, any time George Mitchell comes to Damascus and

he needs a cup of tea, he knows where he can find one.

*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author.

She blogs at

Hamas delivers peace letter to President Obama

Medea Benjamin

The Hamas government in Gaza reached out to President Obama

on the occasion of his visit to the Middle East, announcing

that Hamas was willing to talk to all parties "on the basis

of mutual respect and without preconditions." CODEPINK

cofounder Medea Benjamin, who carried the letter out from

Gaza, said that the letter represented a significant

development and an effort by Hamas to present a new face to

the Western world. "While Osama bin Laden used the occasion

of President Obama's visit to deliver a scathing attack,

Hamas reached out to a feminist U.S. peace group to deliver

a letter to Obama urging dialogue, mutual respect and

adherence to international law," said Medea Benjamin.

In the letter, Hamas urged Obama to visit "our ground Zero"

in Gaza and bring about a "paradigm shift" in the

Israel-Palestine conflict based on enlightened world

opinion and international law.

"This is a people who have just been subjected to a vicious

attack that left over 1,300 dead and thousands wounded, and

there is not a word here about armed resistance or Zionism.

They are reaching out and actively seeking a resolution to

the conflict based on the findings of the world's leading

international legal bodies and human rights organizations

from the United Nations and the International Court of

Justice to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

This is a major breakthrough and the U.S. government should

take advantage to begin a dialogue with Hamas."

The letter was signed by Ahmed Yusef, Deputy Foreign

Minister and hand-delivered to Benjamin, who was in Gaza

headed a 66-person delegation representing 10 nations.

Benjamin and representatives of CODEPINK are delivering the

letter to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo today, June 4, during

Obama's visit to Egypt.

The text of the letter is below.

His Excellency President Barack Obama, President of the

United States of America. June 3rd 2009 Dear Mr. President,

We welcome your visit to the Arab world and your

administration's initiative to bridge differences with the

Arab-Muslim world.

One long-standing source of tension between the United

States and this part of the world has been the failure to

resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict.

It is therefore unfortunate that you will not visit Gaza

during your trip to the Middle East and that neither your

Secretary of State nor George Mitchell have come to hear

our point of view.

We have received numerous visits recently from people of

widely varied backgrounds: U.S. Congressional

representatives, European parliamentarians, the

U.N.-appointed Goldstone commission, and grassroots

delegations such as those organized by the U.S. peace group


It is essential for you to visit Gaza. We have recently

passed through a brutal 22-day Israeli attack. Amnesty

International observed that the death and destruction Gaza

suffered during the invasion could not have happened

without U.S.-supplied weapons and U.S.-taxpayers' money.

Human Rights Watch has documented that the white phosphorus

Israel dropped on a school, hospital, United Nations

warehouse and civilian neighborhoods in Gaza was

manufactured in the United States. Human Rights Watch

concluded that Israel's use of this white phosphorus was a

war crime.

Shouldn't you see first-hand how Israel used your arms and

spent your money?

Before becoming president you were a distinguished

professor of law. The U.S. government has also said that it

wants to foster the rule of law in the Arab-Muslim world.

The International Court of Justice stated in July 2004 that

the whole of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem are

occupied Palestinian territories designated for Palestinian

self-determination, and that the Jewish settlements in the

occupied Palestinian territories are illegal.

Not one of the 15 judges sitting on the highest judicial

body in the world dissented from these principles.

The main human rights organizations in the world, Amnesty

International and Human Rights Watch, have issued position

papers supporting the right of the Palestinian refugees to

return and compensation.

Each year in the United Nations General Assembly nearly

every country in the world has supported these principles

for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Every year the

Arab League puts forth a peace proposal based on these

principles for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Leading human rights organizations such as Human Rights

Watch have also stated that Israel's siege of Gaza is a

form of collective punishment and therefore illegal under

international law.

We in the Hamas Government are committed to pursuing a just

resolution to the conflict not in contradiction with the

international community and enlightened opinion as

expressed in the International Court of Justice, the United

Nations General Assembly, and leading human rights

organizations. We are prepared to engage all parties on the

basis of mutual respect and without preconditions.

However, our constituency needs to see a comprehensive

paradigm shift that not only commences with lifting the

siege on Gaza and halts all settlement building and

expansion but develops into a policy of evenhandedness

based on the very international law and norms we are

prodded into adhering to.

Again, we welcome you to Gaza which would allow you to see

firsthand our ground zero. Furthermore, it would enhance

the US position; enabling you to speak with new credibility

and authority in dealing with all the parties.

Very Truly Yours,

Dr. Ahmed Yousef Deputy of the Foreign Affairs Ministry

Former Senior Political Advisor to Prime Minister Ismael


“Half an apology is not enough”

Abdel-Beri Atwan Editor-in-Chief of

Al-Quds al-Arabi [taken from]

“In the speech he delivered yesterday at Cairo University,

Barack Obama proved he understood the Arabs and Muslims

quite well and knew how to address them. This is why the

speech was filled with Koranic verses and emotional

expressions and tackled all the issues (divided into seven

main axes) without putting forward anything new or anything

that the ordinary citizens are not familiar with. He talked

about democracy without explaining how he was going to

spread it, focused on the cessation of the building of

Israeli settlements in the occupied territories without

putting forward any mechanism and stressed the commitment

to the establishment of a Palestinian state living

alongside an Israeli one, without elaborating his vision of

how to reach this goal.

“With his known intelligence and eloquence, Obama was able

to please all the sides. He thus pleased the Iraqis by

corroborating his commitment to the full withdrawal of all

the troops from their land, the Afghans when he told them

he neither wished to stay in their country nor wished to

establish permanent military bases, the democratic

[advocates] by saying he will help them, the dictators by

avoiding any talk about changing them or imposing sanctions

on them, the Jews when he lamented their suffering and

holocausts, the Palestinians by sympathizing with their

tragedy, even the youths by promising them scholarships to

study in America and developmental projects to secure new

job opportunities and the women in the Islamic world for

whom he demanded equality in all aspects of life.

“These words, tickled the simple-minded who were already

sympathetic toward the dark American president. However, by

looking into them, one could see they were “all talk and no

action”… President Obama, who made sure to remind us that

the United States in its current form as a superpower

emerged from the womb of the resistance against the

colonial empire (Britain), condemned the principle of the

resistance, stressed its inefficiency and asked the

Palestinian people to relinquish all types of violence

(resistance) because they will not secure their goals...

“We might have understood his criticism of the rockets of

the Islamic resistance in the Gaza Strip which are falling

on the heads of the innocent in the southern Israeli

settlements, had he firstly criticized the phosphorus bombs

and the missiles of all sizes and shapes which were

launched by the Israeli tanks, aircrafts and boats on one

and a half million unarmed Palestinians living behind the

bars of the blockade. A few days before he came to power,

President Obama said he would do the exact same thing that

the Israelis were doing (i.e. bomb the Strip), had his

children been attacked with rockets in their sleep. We had

hoped to see him correct this statements and place his

children in the position of the children of Gaza, the lives

of four hundred of whom were claimed by the Israeli rockets

and bombs during the last attack on the Gaza Strip.

“Repeating the same speech about the necessity for the

Muslims to forget the past is a beautiful idea. However, we

are not talking about historical events which occurred

7,000 years ago or even a hundred years ago. We are talking

about events which occurred a few years ago... Obama’s

speech was undoubtedly written with extreme care and was

able to astonish listeners. However, after conducting a

second reading, one could see that the man did not put

forward any drastic changes at the level of his country’s

foreign policy toward the Islamic world. What we heard was

a redrafting of this policy in a new way that does not

include provocative expressions such as the war on

terrorism among others.

“President Obama wants to open a new page with the Islamic

world, which is both possible and welcomed as long as it is

accompanied by a clear apology for America’s crimes against

the Muslims and its ongoing wars against them and by a full

compensation for all the material and human losses that

these wars entailed. The previous American government waged

an immoral war on Iraq, and President Obama courageously

recognized it was a war by choice and not out of necessity,

just like its counterpart in Afghanistan. He thus presented

half an apology, while what he should be doing is the same

thing the Germans did for the Jews and the Iraqis did for

the Kuwaitis, i.e. present a full and public apology as

well as compensations, without any maneuvers...”

- Al-Quds al-Arabi, United Kingdom

Robert Fisk: Most Arabs know this speech will

make little difference

The Independent

I suspect that what the Arab world wants to hear is that

Obama will take his soldiers out of Muslim lands

More and more, it looks like the same old melody that

Bush's lads used to sing. We're not against the Muslim

world. In fact, we are positively for it. We want you to

have democracy, up to a point. We love Arab "moderates" and

we want to reach out to you and be your friends. Sorry

about Iraq. And sorry – again, up to a point – about

Afghanistan and we do hope that you understand why we've

got to have a little "surge" in Helmand among all those

Muslim villages with their paper-thin walls. And yes, we've

made mistakes.

Everyone in the world, or so it seems, is waiting to see if

this is what Barack Obama sings. I'm not sure, though, that

the Arabs are waiting with such enthusiasm as the rest of

the world.

I haven't met an Arab in Egypt – or an Arab in Lebanon, for

that matter – who really thinks that Obama's "outreach"

lecture in Cairo on Thursday is going to make much


They watched him dictate to Bibi Netanyahu – no more

settlements, two-state solution – and they saw Bibi

contemptuously announce, on the day that Mahmoud Abbas, the

most colourless leader in the Arab world, went to the White

House, that Israel's colonial project in the West Bank

would continue unhindered. So that's that, then.

And please note that Obama has chosen Egypt for his latest

address to the Muslims, a country run by an ageing

potentate – Hosni Mubarak is 80 – who uses his secret

police like a private army to imprison human rights

workers, opposition politicians, anyone in fact who

challenges the great man's rule. At this point, we won't

mention torture. Be sure that this little point is unlikely

to get much play in the Obama sermon, just as he surely

will not be discussing Saudi Arabia's orgy of head-chopping

when he chats to King Abdullah on Wednesday.

So what's new, folks? Arabs, I find, have a very shrewd

conception of what goes on in Washington – the lobbying,

the power politics, the dressing up of false friendship in

Rooseveltian language – even if ordinary Americans do not.

They are aware that the "new" America of Obama looks

suspiciously like the old one of Bush and his lads and

ladies. First, Obama addresses Muslims on Al-Arabiya

television. Then he addresses Muslims in Istanbul. Now he

wants to address Muslims all over again in Cairo.

I suppose Obama could say: "I promise I will not make any

decision until I first consult with you and the Jewish

side" along with more promises about being a friend of the

Arabs. Only that's exactly what Franklin Roosevelt told

King Abdul Aziz on the deck of USS Quincy in 1945, so the

Arabs have heard that one before. I guess we'll hear about

terrorism being as much a danger to Arabs as to Israel

another dull Bush theme – and, Obama being a new President,

we might also have a "we shall not let you down" theme.

But for what? I suspect that what the Arab world wants to

hear – not their leaders, of course, all of whom would like

to have a spanking new US air base on their property – is

that Obama will take all his soldiers out of Muslim lands

and leave them alone (American aid, doctors, teachers, etc,

excepted). But for obvious reasons, Obama can't say that.

He can, and will, surely, try his global-Arab line; that

every Arab nation will be involved in the new Middle East

peace, a resurrection of the remarkably sane Saudi offer of

full Arab recognition of Israel in return for an Israeli

return to the 1967 borders in accordance with the UN

Security Council Resolution 242. Obama will be clearing

this with King Abdullah on Wednesday, no doubt. And

everyone will nod sagely and the newspapers of the Arab

dictatorships will solemnly tip their hats to the guy and

the New York Times will clap vigorously.

And the Israeli government will treat it all with the same

amused contempt as Netanyahu treated Obama's demand to stop

building Jewish colonies on Arab land and, back home in

Washington, Congress will fulminate and maybe Obama will

realise, just like the Arab potentates have realised, that

beautiful rhetoric and paradise-promises never, ever, win

against reality.

Obama in Cairo: A Bush in sheep's clothing?

Ali Abunimah,

The Electronic Intifada,

5 June 2009

Once you strip away the mujamalat -- the courtesies

exchanged between guest and host -- the substance of

President Obama's speech in Cairo indicates there is likely

to be little real change in US policy. It is not necessary

to divine Obama's intentions -- he may be utterly sincere

and I believe he is. It is his analysis and prescriptions

that in most regards maintain flawed American policies


Though he pledged to "speak the truth as best I can," there

was much the president left out. He spoke of tension

between "America and Islam" -- the former a concrete

specific place, the latter a vague construct subsuming

peoples, practices, histories and countries more varied

than similar.

Labeling America's "other" as a nebulous and

all-encompassing "Islam" (even while professing

rapprochement and respect) is a way to avoid acknowledging

what does in fact unite and mobilize people across many

Muslim-majority countries: overwhelming popular opposition

to increasingly intrusive and violent American military,

political and economic interventions in many of those

countries. This opposition -- and the resistance it

generates -- has now become for supporters of those

interventions, synonymous with "Islam."

It was disappointing that Obama recycled his predecessor's

notion that "violent extremism" exists in a vacuum,

unrelated to America's (and its proxies') exponentially

greater use of violence before and after 11 September 2001.

He dwelled on the "enormous trauma" done to the US when

almost 3,000 people were killed that day, but spoke not one

word about the hundreds of thousands of orphans and widows

left in Iraq -- those whom Muntazer al-Zaidi's flying shoe

forced Americans to remember only for a few seconds last

year. He ignored the dozens of civilians who die each week

in the "necessary" war in Afghanistan, or the millions of

refugees fleeing the US-invoked escalation in Pakistan.

As President George W. Bush often did, Obama affirmed that

it is only a violent minority that besmirches the name of a

vast and "peaceful" Muslim majority. But he seemed once

again to implicate all Muslims as suspect when he warned,

"The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in

Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer."

Nowhere were these blindspots more apparent than his

statements about Palestine/Israel. He gave his audience a

detailed lesson on the Holocaust and explicitly used it as

a justification for the creation of Israel. "It is also

undeniable," the president said, "that the Palestinian

people -- Muslims and Christians -- have suffered in

pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they have

endured the pain of dislocation."

Suffered in pursuit of a homeland? The pain of dislocation?

They already had a homeland. They suffered from being

ethnically cleansed and dispossessed of it and prevented

from returning on the grounds that they are from the wrong

ethno-national group. Why is that still so hard to say?

He lectured Palestinians that "resistance through violence

and killing is wrong and does not succeed." He warned them

that "It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot

rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a

bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is

how it is surrendered."

Fair enough, but did Obama really imagine that such words

would impress an Arab public that watched in horror as

Israel slaughtered 1,400 people in Gaza last winter,

including hundreds of sleeping, fleeing or terrified

children, with American-supplied weapons? Did he think his

listeners would not remember that the number of Palestinian

and Lebanese civilians targeted and killed by Israel has

always far exceeded by orders of magnitude the number of

Israelis killed by Arabs precisely because of the American

arms he has pledged to continue giving Israel with no

accountability? Amnesty International recently confirmed

what Palestinians long knew: Israel broke the negotiated

ceasefire when it attacked Gaza last 4 November, prompting

retaliatory rockets that killed no Israelis until after

Israel launched its much bigger attack on Gaza. That he

continues to remain silent about what happened in Gaza, and

refuses to hold Israel accountable demonstrates anything

but a commitment to full truth-telling.

Some people are prepared to give Obama a pass for all this

because he is at last talking tough on Israeli settlements

in the occupied West Bank. In Cairo, he said: "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."

These carefully chosen words focus only on continued

construction, not on the existence of the settlements

themselves; they are entirely compatible with the peace

process industry consensus that existing settlements will

remain where they are for ever. This raises the question of

where Obama thinks he is going. He summarized Palestinians'

"legitimate aspirations" as being the establishment of a

"state." This has become a convenient slogan that is

supposed to replace for Palestinians their pursuit of

rights and justice that the proposed state actually denies.

Obama is already on record opposing Palestinian refugees'

right to return home, and has never supported the right of

Palestinian citizens of Israel to live free from racist and

religious incitement, persecution and practices fanned by

Israel's highest office holders and written into its laws.

He may have more determination than his predecessor but he

remains committed to an unworkable two-state "vision" aimed

not at restoring Palestinian rights, but preserving Israel

as an enclave of Israeli Jewish privilege. It is a dead


There was one sentence in his speech I cheered for and

which he should heed: "Given our interdependence, any world

order that elevates one nation or group of people over

another will inevitably fail."

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is

author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the

Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006).

The audacity of hope, from Cairo

By Sami Moubayed

Asia Times Online

DAMASCUS - The American media recently reported that United

States Congressman John Kerry had been channeling messages

back-and-forth between Damascus and President Barack Obama.

This "phone diplomacy" has succeeded, reports said, at

narrowing the gap between both countries, which appeared

strained after the US renewed sanctions on Syria last May.

Apparently, one immediate result of engagement was the

decision to send George Mitchell, Obama's Middle East

envoy, to Damascus. This will take place after the upcoming

Lebanese parliamentary elections, scheduled for June 7, and

Mitchell will discuss the Middle East peace process, which

is currently on hold due to resistance from the hardline

cabinet in Israel, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin


Meanwhile, Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel,

spoke to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot, describing

a recent visit to Syria where he met with Foreign Minister

Walid al-Mouallem, saying: "There is greater flexibility

than in the past in Syria. Not on territory - it would be a

mistake to think that they have changed their position.

They will not cede a single centimeter of territory. But if

Israel recognizes Syria's sovereignty over the entire

Golan, they will be willing to talk about what remains."

Another breakthrough was a phone conversation between

Mouallem and his US counterpart Secretary of State Hillary

Clinton, where the Syrian minister said that his country

would welcome a visit by US Central Command officers to

Damascus this June, to discuss stability in Iraq.

Clinton and Mouallem have already met twice, in Shark

el-Sheikh and Istanbul, where they discussed common ground

for Syria and the US in Iraq. In return, Clinton promised

to develop a joint "road map" for improving bilateral

relations between the two countries. Clinton reportedly

said: "We will be prepared to discuss with you all issues

related to Syrian-American relations."

Although pleased at these developments, Syria did not

officially comment on President Barack Obama's speech

to the Muslim world, delivered in Cairo on Thursday.

Ordinary Syrians went to local coffee shops to watch the

speech - a ritual that is usually reserved for Hezbollah

secretary general Hassan Nasrallah.

While they usually applause and cheer Nasrallah's rhetoric,

no clapping accompanied Obama's speech, just smiling faces

at a realization that something was changing - fast - in

Washington DC. Syria's state TV did not transmit the speech

live, but private Syrian channels, like al-Dunia, did.

Obama twice made reference to the Holy Koran, and spoke

about women's rights, education, democracy, and enhancing

people-to-people relations between the Muslim world, and

the United States. He clearly strayed from previous

rhetoric by noting that democracy cannot be imposed on any

nation, which his predecessor had tried to impose on

several Arab countries (Syria included) and spoke about

respecting popular choice in any elections - which the

Syrians hoped, was in reference to Hamas in the Palestinian

territories, and Hezbollah in this weekend's polls in


The Syrian audience smiled when Obama used strong words

about the rights of Palestinian statehood, saying: "It is

also undeniable that the Palestinian people - Muslims and

Christians - have suffered in pursuit of a homeland ...

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.

America will not turn our backs on the legitimate

Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state

of their own."

He then added, "The United States does not accept the

legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements." There was

relief, accompanied by skepticism, nevertheless, inherited

from eight years of mistrust, brought about from the era of

former US president George W Bush.

Although many ordinary Syrians are willing to give Obama

the benefit of the doubt, since he sounded sincere when

talking about the Palestinians, they doubt if the US

president can put his words into action. There is plenty of

resentment in the US Congress, after all, over Obama's

stance on Israeli settlements.

Shelly Berkley (Democrat, Nevada) best put it saying: "My

concern is that we are applying pressure to the wrong party

in this dispute. I think it would serve America's interest

better if we were pressuring the Iranians to eliminate the

potential of a nuclear threat from Iran, and less time

pressuring our allies and the only democracy in the Middle

East to stop the natural growth of their settlements."

Obama is yet to reduce sanctions, in order to really earn

the admiration of the Syrians, lift Syria from the State

Department List of State Sponsors of Terrorism and send an

ambassador to Damascus to fill a post that has been vacant

since 2005.

Syrian-US relations were feared to have hit a dead-end when

Obama renewed sanctions on Damascus in mid-May, repeating

the same words used by Bush when sanctions were first

imposed, in 2004. They immediately dismissed the sanctions

as routine legislation, claiming that even if he so wished,

Obama could not lift sanctions that easily, once they

become embedded in US law.

A visit by two US officials, Jeffery Feltman and Dan

Shapiro last week, helped reduce Syrian worries, and so did

the Mouallem-Clinton phone conversation. The Syrians still

believe that if Obama pulls the right strings, peace can be

achieved in the Middle East and that Syrian-US relations

can be improved, given that both countries share so many

common objectives in Iraq, like disarming militias,

combating al-Qaeda, supporting the political process and

helping maintain a united Iraq.

Syria has said, time and again, that it is willing to

cooperate on all of the above, if it is treated as an ally,

rather than an outlaw in the Middle East. According to

Joshua Landis, an American professor who is an expert on

Syrian affairs, "Syria has long insisted that the US must

treat Syria with a modicum of civility and respect if it

expects to make progress on outstanding foreign policy


Although Obama made no reference to Syria in his speech, he

did speak about willing to sit down and speak to Iran, with

no preconditions. He spoke about Palestinian statehood,

which was warmly received on the Arab street, particularly

in Syria. His praise of Israel was not new - and was even

expected, by ordinary Arabs. It was used as a pretext,

however, by Osama bin Laden to dismiss the US president

hours before the speech was delivered, accusing him of

being no different from Bush.

Certainly more people were listening to Obama in Syria and

the Arab world than those who paid any attention to Bin

Laden. Most Arabs reasoned that from where things stood

under Bush, the only way to go in Arab-US relations was up.

Things could never have gotten worse for the Middle East,

and in testimony to that, the Arabs wanted someone who

could inspire them to hope for a better future. Obama did

just that with his Cairo speech.

Striking a realistic tone shortly before his appearance in

Cairo, the US president spoke to the BBC and said, "It is

my firm belief that no one speech is going to solve every

problem. There are no silver bullets. There are very real

policy issues that have to be worked through that are

difficult. And, ultimately, it's going to be action and not

words that determine the path, the progress - from here on


Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in


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