Obama Speech Draws Spirited Response From DC To Damascus

by James M. Wall  Obama Cairo cropped

Reactions to Barack Obama’s Cairo speech were largely positive, with one notable caveat.  

Start with the ongoing struggle between two Washington, D.C. lobby groups, AIPAC, and its emerging challenger, J Street

The more moderate challenger’s rise to prominence was timely, just before Obama took off to Cairo where the President’s speech was praised worldwide.  

There remains, however, a dark cloud hovering over Obama’s rhetoric: His plans for Palestine, specifically, his failure to reverse the military assistance program George Bush gave Fatah in its attempt–backed by Israel–to defeat Hamas. 

Obama is in a position to stop favoring Fatah. He has backup at home where that struggle between two sides in the DC Lobby wars, as reported pre-Cairo by the Atlantic.com blog, is starting to tilt away from AIPAC:

AIPAC and J Street–the two major rivals in the Israel lobbying scene–each circulated a letter in Congress in May, both addressed to President Obama, both urging support for Israel and a two-state peace solution with Palestinians. 

AIPAC’s letter went out first, originally dated May 1, with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Minority Whip Eric Cantor as major signers. They quickly had a list of 328 members taking the usual AIPAC hard line.  

J Street followed  with its letter on May 13,  with Reps. Steve Cohen (D) and Charles Boustany (R) at the top of a list of 87.

After the Cairo speech it is entirely possible that the robotic hold AIPAC has over 328 House members could decline. Before Obama’s election, it is hard to imagine that J Street could have found 87 members for its letter. 

The J Street 87 includes prominent members (Judiciary Chariman John Conyers, Ways and Means Chairman Charles Ranglel, Veterans Affairs Chairman Bob Filner, John Dingell, Barbara Lee) as well as a handful of freshmen (14 signers were elected in 2008).

Freshmen members of Congress know they are one AIPAC opponent away from a permanent return trip home.  The 14 Freshmen signers demonstrated courage. Their willingness to sign the J Street letter also offers hope that AIPAC’s fund-raising dominance is slipping. 

The differences between the two letters are highly significant. There was no difference between the two letters on AIPAC’s boiler plate goals: working closely with Israel, gaining a Palestinian promise to end violence, bringing in Arab neighbors to the discussions, and, course,  letting the sides negotiate on their own.

J Street’s letter accepted these goals. But J Street’s letter added new material: Condemning new settlement construction and a call for a buildup of the Palestinian economy and security, before any solution is reached.

Security for Palestinians? Previous AIPAC letters left the impression that its authors could not bring themselves to write the word Palestinians, and certainly they have never included the name that President Obama finally dared speak in Cairo: Palestine

Another major difference between the AIPAC and J Street letters came in the way each group wants to deal with  Israel.

AIPAC suggests that disagreements with Israel be kept private. J Street made no reference to that point.

That was a sticking point for Rep. Barney Frank, who sent his own letter to Obama Tuesday, endorsing all of AIPAC’s goals except for that one.

When Barney Frank starts rewriting AIPAC and sending his own letter, you can feel the techtonic shift rumbling below 

In his private letter to Obama, Frank explained:

Given the fact that we are both democracies where public policy should ultimately set with the support of the people in each country, it would be a mistake to refuse to discuss important differences on how to achieve our mutual goals in a way that the electorates in both countries could understand.

In his Cairo speech, President Obama agreed with Frank:

“America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs,” Obama said Thursday in his address to the Muslim world–clearly siding against that part of the AIPAC letter.

Support for Obama continued to grow among U.S. religious leaders. More than 50 major religious figures sent a letter of support to President Obama. Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) posted the letter and invites additional signatures. 

Many of the leaders also signed a similar statement after the recent Carter Center Human Rights Conference, in Atlanta. 

Writing from Dubai, where he listened to the Obama speech on his way to cover the Iran elections, Nation columnist Robert Dreyfuss was almost estatic over what the speech can mean to the Palestinians. 

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 secururity that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily huiliations–large and small–that come with occupation. 

So let there be no doubt. The situation for the Palestinan people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate aspiration for dignity, opporrunity, and a state of their own. . . .

. . .He even nodded to Hamas, acknowledging that Hamas has support among the Palestinians, and – amazingly – did not refer to the organization as a “terrorist group.”

Robert Fisk, writing in the London Independent, acknowledged both the brilliance of Obama’s rhetoric and the complex challenge of the task that awaits Obama.

“The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” Obama said, and the US would not turn its back on the “legitimate Palestinian aspiration for a state of their own”. Israel had to take “concrete steps” to give the Palestinians progress in their daily lives as part of a road to peace. Israel needed to acknowledge Palestinian suffering and the Palestinian right to exist.

Wow. Not for a generation has Israel had to take this kind of criticism from a US President. It sounded like the end of the Zionist dream. Did George Bush ever exist?

Ay, there’s the rub. Bush did exist, and the mess he left behind will demand considerable skill to repair.  Fisk concludes:

An intelligent guy, then, Obama. Not exactly Gettysburg. Not exactly Churchill, but not bad. One could only remember Churchill’s observations: “Words are easy and many, while great deeds are difficult and rare.”

Great deeds will be needed to deal with the balancing act Obama is attempting as he reaches out to Hamas even as he allows his own military leaders to train a joint Fatah-Israeli effort against Hamas.

This is a major dark cloud that hovers over Obama’s fine rhetoric. 

That cloud is in Damascus, Syria, where Helena Cobban, former Christian Science Monitor correspondent interviewed Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal.

Nic336898The interview appeared on Cobban’s blog and was reprinted on the Foreign Policy blog. 

Meshaal found Obama’s speech both respectful of Islam and disappointing in its prescriptions for peace:

The speech was cleverly written in the way it addressed the Muslim world– using phrases from the Holy Kor’an, and referring to some historical events. And also, in the way it showed respect to the Muslim heritage. But I think it’s not enough. What’s needed are deeds, actions on the ground, and a change of policies. 

For example, if the Palestinians today don’t find a real change from the situation of siege in Gaza, there’s no point; the speech by itself doesn’t help them.

What they’re looking for is an end to the siege and an end to occupation . . such as ending Israel’s settlement activity, putting an end to Israel’s confiscation of Palestinian land and its campaign to Judaize Jerusalem; an end to its demolitions of Palestinian homes; and the removal of the 600 checkpoints that are stifling normal life in the West Bank.

Rather than sweet words from President Obama on democratization, 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 democratization and human rights in the Arab world, we’d rather see the removal of General Dayton, who’s building a police state there in the West Bank.

The Hamas leader is referring, of course, to Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, U.S. Security Coordinator for the Israel-Dayton photo croppedPalestinian Authority, a hold-over from the Bush administration, a U. S. military leader who continues, for the Obama administration, the Bush policy of arming Fatah to fight Hamas. 

It is in the current activities of General Dayton that a dark cloud descends over Obama’s sunny post-Cairo days. 

General Dayton recently praised P.A. [Fatah] security forces as being “founders of a Palestinian state”, a disturbing reminder of failed U.S. policies in Central America and most recently, in Dayton-trained Fatah forces’ failure to militarily overthrow the legitimately elected Hamas government in Gaza.

Khaled Meshaal is most certainly aware of the report on General Dayton recently posted on the Washington-based Israel Policy Forum blog. The report is from Israel National News

The American government has spent tens of millions of dollars outfitting the PA troops, which it calls “special forces,” possibly in order to avoid contradicting the Oslo Accords that limit military activities of the PA. Dayton has been overseeing their training, which takes place in Jordan and at a base built in Jericho with U.S. funds. Weapons for the “special forces” are provided by Arab countries, with Israeli approval.

As the Israel National News describes General Dayton’s understanding of his role, it is that of a military leader who is clearly training one side–Fatah– in an internal Palestinan conflict against Hamas. He refers to Fatah as the “founders of a Palestinian state” in a recent speech he gave to Fatah troops in Tulkarm, a Palestinian city in the northern section of the West Bank. 

The report continues (using Israeli nomenclature–Shechem and Hevron–for the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Hebron, and describing the Wall with the Israeli term, “Judea-Samaria seperation barrier”):

. . . the Obama administration plans to expand the training program for 1,600 troops, most of whom are deployed in large PA-controlled Arab cities, including Jenin, Shechem and Hevron. 

During his visit to Tulkarm, located almost adjacent to the Judea-Samaria seperation barrier and only a few miles east of Netanya, Dayton said:

“If it goes the way the [Obama] administration has asked for, we will accelerate dramatically what we are doing here in terms of training and equipment, and filling in the gaps in between.”

Arming Fatah against Hamas and training Fatah’s troops to fight Hamas contradicts this passage in Obama’s speech.

…Human history has often been a record of nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.

So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of itOur problems must be dealt with through partnershipThat does not mean we should ignore sources of tension. Indeed, it suggests the opposite: we must face these tensions squarely.

If President Obama wants to face these tensions squarely, he must begin by ending General Dayton’s mission. Partnership means partnership, not partisanship, which favors one side over the other in an internal political struggle. 

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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2 Responses to Obama Speech Draws Spirited Response From DC To Damascus

  1. Harris Fawell says:

    Thanks again for your insights. Harris

  2. Jim, Thanks for your insights.

    I am still shuddering at the memory of a conversation a few years ago in DC when I asked two bright young Indonesian Muslims, who the most important religious leader in the US was. Without hesitation they answered ” George Bush”!

    Pres Obama needs to be cautious in all of his daunting tasks as he attempts to woo Muslims and other religious groups to a more complete understanding of who we Americans are. We remain the most religiously diverse nation on earth!

    We work on a smaller scale here in Raleigh.


    Change HAPPENS! We have other models to help tell stories using the mantra – Produce Once, Publish EVERYWHERE!


    Good stories inspire action!

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