Obama, the Arab Spring and irrelevance

Report by Omar Barghouti, Mondoweiss.NET
Published: 23/05/11

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In his policy speech on Thursday, 19 May, US President Barack Obama said that with the eruption of the Arab peoples’ revolutions for freedom and democracy Al-Qaida lost its relevance. In my view, so did the US, relatively speaking, but few in the US establishment are yet ready to admit that. In his speech before AIPAC on Sunday, 22 May, Mr. Obama came across, again, as more of an Israel advocate than a US president, further alienating Arab -- and many other -- audiences.

With Arabs crossing the barrier of fear and taking the initiative to rebuild their societies freely, on democratic principles, the last thing they need is the US government’s offer for help; having seen exactly how the US is building democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Obama will excuse Arabs for being skeptical about his offer, to put it mildly.

The Arab Spring happened despite the US administration’s decades-old staunch support for the dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. US support for the Saudi dictatorship, arguably the most totalitarian and reactionary of all, has been critical in suppressing popular revolt and democratic reform in the oil-rich oligarchy. In Tunisia and Egypt, only after victory became a fait accompli did the US and most of Europe start paying lip service to the need for democratization and an orderly transfer of power.

To underline this point, the US has maintained its crucial backing of the Yemeni and Bahraini despotic regimes, despite brutal violations of human rights, arbitrary killings of peaceful protesters, and imprisonment of reform leaders, simply because the regimes there have proven to be able -- at least temporarily -- to hold back the revolts by brute force. Once the regimes start to crumble, so will US public support for them, no doubt. Realpolitik wins, at the end, while principles and a true commitment to human rights and international law -- the latter being completely missing from the entire Obama speech -- take a back seat, as always.

And now the US administration is offering Tunisians and Egyptians petty “debt-relief“ bribes after having colluded with the tyrannical regimes there in the pillage of their respective nations’ wealth and the investment of these sums in the US and Western Europe, for the most part. Mr. Obama must think that Arabs have a very shallow memory or are somewhat slow. The sooner he realizes that he is wrong on both accounts, the more likely his administration will be able to absorb the true historic meanings and transformative repercussions of the Arab Spring and, consequently, the more just, fair, consistent and relevant US foreign policy can become.

In his policy speech on Thursday, Obama’s mere mention of the 1967 borders as a territorial basis for “negotiations“ triggered a synthetic outrage by the Israeli government. Obama’s caveat that followed,“with agreed land swaps,“ was intentionally ignored by Israeli officials’ and lobbyists’ irate attacks on Obama. As a result, Obama bent over backward in his speech before AIPAC to explain that what he really meant was that the 1967 borders will not stay the same as they must accommodate Israel’s colonies built on occupied Palestinian land over the last 44 years of occupation. By bluntly putting Israel’s interests ahead of everything else, including long established US interests in ensuring “stability“ and winning hearts and minds in the region, Mr. Obama’s two speeches made those US interests even more remote. The fact that Obama’s strongest argument for ending the Israeli occupation is that it serves Israel’s interest of securing a Jewish state and circumvents the fast growing international isolation further confirms where his allegiances lie.

Judging by myriad opinion columns and media interviews on main Arab TV channels President Obama’s original policy speech largely failed to impress the Arab publics, including Palestinians, for several reasons; I shall focus on the most blatant.

First, very few Arabs today actually trust the Obama administration, particularly after its demeaning U-turn on the US demand for Israel to freeze its colonial settlements illegally built on occupied Palestinian and Syrian territory. The utter failure of the US administration to compel Israel to stop construction of those colonies -- which constitute war crimes according to international law -- has cost the US a severe hemorrhage of credibility in the eyes of the Arab world. If Israel will not listen to its main benefactor over such a relatively small matter, can anyone expect the US to pressure Israel to recognize the more substantial inalienable rights of the Palestinian people?

Second, the fanatic-right Israeli government with Netanyahu at its helm has, through its well endowed lobby groups, shown beyond doubt that it commands far more influence over the US Congress than Obama and his administration when it comes to setting Mideast policy. Not only was the US forced to accept the humiliation of being seen by the world as obsequiously complying with Israeli diktats by reversing long standing US policy condemning Israel’s settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace; it had to cast a veto a resolution at the UN, supported by an overwhelming majority of the world community, that reiterated this US policy staple.

Netanyahu’s latest public rebuff of Obama at their meeting on Friday did not help ameliorate the damage either. As a result, no matter what Mr. Obama says now, very few will take it seriously, knowing that Israel’s far-right government will ultimately have the upper hand in setting US policy in this part of the world.

Third, Mr. Obama’s double standard has reached a new record, as he threw around lofty terms such as “self determination,“ “inclusive democracy,“ “the inalienable right to freedom,“ but he largely excluded the Palestinian people from the set of nations entitled to these inherent rights. He spoke of the “self-evident truth that all men are created equal,“ but ignored Israel’s system of racial discrimination that the US Department of State has itself consistently condemned as constituting “institutional, legal, and societal“ discrimination against the indigenous Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. In fact, this legalized discrimination fits the UN definition of apartheid.

Furthermore, while Obama spoke about his government’s support for non-violent struggle for freedom and equal rights, he again excluded Palestinian peaceful resistance against the Israeli occupation and apartheid. Non-violence is exactly what most Palestinians have been engaged in over many years, whether in the civil society-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the mass peaceful protests against the wall and colonies, or the most recent Nakba commemoration peaceful marches that succeeded in crossing the border into the occupied Golan Heights, setting a historic precedent that is pregnant with far reaching potential.

What added insult to injury in the speech was Obama’s insistence on recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state,“ which he emphasized further by calling it a “state of the Jewish people,“ thus endorsing Israel’s extraterritorial definition of nationality, a clear violation of international law that fundamentally denies the non-Jewish citizens of Israel, the indigenous Palestinians, equal rights simply because of their identity. Imagine if the US President were to describe the US as a Christian nation, or a nation of Christians around the world. Why should Israel be treated as above the law of nations and allowed to maintain an ethnocentric, exclusionary regime that automatically reduces its “non-Jewish“ citizens to second-class citizenship with circumscribed rights due to their ethnic or religious identity? How can any state be allowed to define itself as a state of some of its citizens, and many others who are not, but not of all its citizens? Whatever happened to Mr. Obama’s supposed commitment to equality and “inclusive democracy“?

By the same logic, international law does not condone an exclusionary, racist Islamic, Christian, Hindu or any other state that institutionalizes racial discrimination and apartheid against part of citizenry, based on their ethnic, religious or any other identity attribute.

Charting a path to a just, comprehensive, and sustainable peace in the Middle East requires that all parties abide by international law and universal human rights. So long as the US administration carries on with its massive, multi-billion dollar annual subsidy for Israel’s intransigence and to protect from international censure and sanctions Israel’s multi-tiered system of colonial oppression against the Palestinians, no glamorous oratory from Mr. Obama stands a chance to slow down the US’s descent into irrelevance in the ongoing reshaping of the modern history of this strategic region.