Brilliantly crafted, and forcefully delivered. The president broke almost no knew ground (promises of education and development partnerships excepted) but he said what needed to be said - covering all of bases, from our ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq to economic development, democracy, exchange students, and religious pluralism.
Mr. Obama recommitted the United States to the Middle East Peace Process, and used his his speech to highlight the key promises Israelis and Palestinians must recommit themselves to. "Palestinians must abandon violence," the president said today. "Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed. ... ... Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have to recognize they have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel's right to exist."
To those of us who live in the United States this is a no-brainer. No state can be asked to surrender its land to a political entity that sides with those which either will not or cannot protect its partner from acts of terrorism. Substantively, Obama covered no new ground but he presented the argument in a new way that invites the Palestinians to draw upon the history of such luminaries as Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president, and Mohandas Gandhi, the late spiritual and political leader of India's nonviolent independence movement:
"For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. 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 is surrendered."
Independence movements claim their moral authority through nonviolent means. They invite scorn, ridicule and political backlash when they reject peace.
The president was no less frank in his expectations for the Israelis. The settlements must go. It is unclear from his statement whether he is calling for the removal of all settlements or if he is merely calling for a halt to any settlement expansion or construction at this time.
As I have noted on prior occasions, the status concerning existing settlements can be determined at a future date as a part of an expected peace treaty signed between the Israeli and Palestinian states as long as the Israelis halt any ongoing and planned settlement construction/addition projects as a measure of good faith. Presumably, the Israelis would either have to dismantle most of its settlements as a part of a final peace deal. In the alternative, compensate for such land taken by offering the Palestinians land of equal worth elsewhere or provide more in the way of financial compensation.
Mr. Obama did not, as some of his critics suggest, apologize for wrongful acts committed by the United States. He noted that both we and the Iranians, have contributed to the "tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran." Mr. Obama reaffirmed his opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran, saying it could lead to a new arms race in the already violent-prone Middle East but said he is willing to negotiate with the country "without preconditions."
The president affirmed his respect for democratic values which incorporate respect for religious pluralism, minority rights, women rights, and free speech but he reassured those of us who believe we shouldn't nor can't remake the world in our image. "No system of government," Mr. Obama said, "can or should be imposed by one nation by any other." Unfortunately, the president, who spoke so candidly about our disagreements on Israel, religious pluralism (going so far as to note the pleas from Coptic Egyptians and Maronite Lebanese), and women rights, missed an important opportunity to reiterate his commitment to gay rights. This glaring admission is troubling to many within the gay community who believe this president will if he has not already, broken the promises he made to it. At a minimum the president should have noted that the decriminalization of homosexuality is in line with and is in fact a worthy exercise in tolerance if not a prerequisite (that it is) for democratic governance and freedom. Liberty, after all, is about the rights of individuals to engage in practices that others might immoral or foolish.
Mr. Obama's commitment to strengthen our ties with the Middle East this early in his term was reassuring. Equally reassuring are the means he vowed to use to do so. The president offered us a comprehensive strategy that not only focuses on reviving the Middle East peace process and a new diplomatic tact with Iran but also on economic development and an expanded exchange student program that invites Arabs and Americans to broaden their minds by pursuing their training here (Arabs) and abroad (us). The ties which these students make both hear and abroad could moderate those who might otherwise have joined extreme Holocaust-denying, anti-American Muslim sects as well as those who might otherwise condemn all Muslims for being anti-American and sexist peoples.
Mr. Obama will have his work cut out for him but he is making, at least on the foreign policy front, a promising start.