Obama's speech to the Muslim world

President Obama promised that he wanted his Cairo speech to be the start of an "honest" dialogue with the Muslim world.  When it comes to how he handled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he fell short.

He began his remarks on this issue by recalling a long history of anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews, culminating in the Holocaust.  He denounced Holocaust deniers and those who would threaten Israel "with destruction" -- but without mentioning Iran or Ahmadinejad.

Seeking to sound even-handed, he then immediately drew an equivalence between historical Jewish suffering and the lot of Palestinians.  "On the other hand," he remarked, "it is also undeniable that Palestinians have suffered in their pursuit of a homeland -- for more than 60 years they've endured the pain of dislocation."  He pointed to Palestinians still waiting in refugee camps and Palestinians who have to "endure the daily humiliations -- large and small -- that come with occupation."  Their situation, he said, is "intolerable" and America will support their legitimate aspirations for "dignity, opportunity and "a state of their own."

And that's where Obama failed to speak "honestly" about Palestinian pain and its causes.

For starters, he drew a totally false analogy between the Holocaust and the Palestinian pain of "dislocations" and "daily humilitations" under Israeli occupation.  The parallel between the deliberate slaughter of 6 million Jews and the lot of Palestinians in refugee camps and in the West Bank and Gaza, where the UN supplies them with schools, food and shelter, is unsupportable.  Yes, it's an unhappy lot, but it's not Auschwitz or Buchenwald.  Not by a long shot.  UN reports consistently rank the Palestinian territories ahead of Syria, Egypt, and about 70 other nations in basic standards of living.

Secondly, in discussing the Palestinian "pain of dislocation," Obama bought directly into Palestinian refusal to acknowledge that much of that pain has been self-inflicted.  He failed to be "honest" with Palestinians by not telling them that there would be no refugee camps nor "daily humiliations" under Israeli occupation, if only their leaders and the leaders of Arab nations had accepted a two-state solution more than 60 years ago under the UN's partition plan of 1947.  Or that all that pain could have been ended in 2000 if Arafat had accepted a generous two-state plan offered by Bill Clinton or Ehud Barak.  Or, as recently as last year, when Ehud Olmert proposed a Palestinian state on 95 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza with a land corridor to connect the 2 territories.

Obama spoke eloquently about the Palestinians' right to claim a state of their own, but totally blanked out a long history of rejectionism of a two-state solution by their own leaders, including Mahmoud Abbas, who flatly turned down Olmert in 2008.

The president also shortchanged Israel and its leaders when he deplored a "continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza" and "lack of opportunity" in the West Bank, without in any way crediting Israel for moving daily truck convoys with medicines, food and other essential goods into Gaza, and without mentioning Israel's relaxation of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank to improve economic progress for the Palestinians.

That said, Obama spoke out strongly and eloquently against Palestinian reliance on violence to achieve their political goals.  "Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed," he declared.  Obama pointed to the suffering of blacks in America under slavery and segregation, noting that peaceful protests -- not violence -- brought about "full and equal rights."  Calling violence a "dead end," he added:  "It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus.  That's not how moral authority is claimed; that's how it's surrendered."

Obama also didn't shy from calling on the Palestinian Authority to work toward a "capacity to govern."  While welcoming the Arab "peace" initiative as an "important beginning," he made clear that Arab leader still have a way to go -- by helping to strengthen proper Palestinian governance in the West Bank and by recognizing "Israel's legitimacy."

With Hamas, the president drew a sharp line in the sand against this terrorist organization, saying that it could play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations only by putting an end to violence, recognizing past peace agreements, and recognizing Israel's right to exist.

On settlements, where Obama is applying special pressure on Israel's new government, he said the U.S.  "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."  While the rhetoric was harsh, it fell short of the more implacable anti-settlement gauntlet that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently laid down, when she declared that Israel must cease any and all construction in settlements without exceptions.

Whether significant or not, Obama was less specific than his secretary of state.

All in all, Obama's remarks on Israel and the Palestinians included some welcome truth-saying, along with lots of blindness to the real dangers Israel faces and to continued Arab/Palestinian rejectionism of a genuine two-state solution.