Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Obama's U.N. Speech

As some of you know, it's a busy week at the U.N. The headliner event, of course, is the speech Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will give on Friday, when he'll presumably make the case for Palestinian membership in the U.N. Yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama made his annual speech at the U.N. He touched on several important issues in the world, including the Arab Spring, violence in Yemen and Syria, terrorism, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, South Sudan's independence, the protracted election struggle in the Ivory Coast, WMD, poverty, and so on.

But it's his words on Israel and Palestine that have generated the most attention, especially here in the States. Obama reiterated America's position on resolving the longstanding tensions and conflicts. According to the President: "Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN - if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians - not us - who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem."

Given America's historical relations with Israel, and with the U.S. presidential election season already in motion, it should be no surprise that Obama devoted more time to talking about the Israeli rather than the Palestinian perspective on the conflict. And relatedly, it should hardly be a surprise that Obama gave an impassioned defense of of Israel as well as Israel's place in U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, Obama proclaimed:

"America's commitment to Israel's security is unshakable, and our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day. Let's be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel's citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel's children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile, persecution, and the fresh memory of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they were."

His words are spot on, as he succinctly captured the precarious situation that Israel finds itself in nowadays. The dangers and concerns are real, not imagined or manufactured by hawkish Israelis, the West, the Israel Lobby, or any other conspiratorial actor. Unfortunately, Obama's words will do little to ameliorate relations between the Israelis and Palestinians. If anything, they could aggravate existing tensions in the region. Moreover, once again, Obama is at a point in which he delivered a speech that won't satisfy any of its target audiences. If you recall, this was a point Yohanes made after Obama gave his speech on the Arab Spring back in May.

Let's quickly look at the three main target audiences. One, the speech likely doesn't move Israel or Israel's supporters (including those here in the U.S.) much, if at all. They still question the strength of Obama's commitment to Israel, and many would prefer someone else in the Oval Office who, in their view, has stronger pro-Israel credentials.

Two, the Palestinians are still upset and frustrated, as Obama's speech did little to alter the status quo. He failed to offer anything that could change the incentives for either the Israelis or Palestinians as a means to break the political deadlock.

And three, Obama's speech couldn't have gone over well in the rest of the Middle East. A peek at the Twitter pages of several leading Middle East social/political activists in countries like Egypt and Yemen highlights my doubts. Many wonder how Obama can say that he backs the Arab Spring, as well as democratic movements and aspirations more generally--which is something he stated in his speech--yet he is unwilling to support a place for the Palestinians at the U.N. To them, it's just another example of American hypocrisy on issues related to democracy and reform in foreign countries. The U.S. supports buzzwords like freedom and liberty when it's convenient, so goes the argument, not universally across the world.

As I see it, the problem is that Obama was content to say that he outlined the basis for negotiations in May, never attempting to build off those efforts. This omission is strange, and it's bad foreign policy. He could have tried to find ways to get both sides talking again. In his speech, he said, "peace is tough," but that's not a reason to sidestep the difficult obstacles that stand in the way of obtaining a just and proper conflict resolution. He needed to explore the idea of getting both sides back to the negotiating table. After all, that's the problem right now. Almost everyone on both sides know where the endpoint is but no one is willing to take the first steps to begin to get there. Oh, sure, there's an enormous level of behind the scenes diplomacy at the moment. But had Obama broadcast that America's redoubling its efforts on the peace talks, he might have been able to bring some new energy to the moribund talks. Even if that seems highly unlikely, it's a chance worth taking, right?

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