Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama Speaks at al-Azhar

Before commenting on this morning's speech, I urge readers to watch this lively debate between liberal Haaretz columnist Gershon Baskin and conservative Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick on the IBA network.

Glick starts out strongly with her comments expressing skepticism of Obama's differences in policy but her argument that freezing settlements is unfair application of the law is pretty far out. Having written an 80 page paper on Negev Bedouin rights in Israel, I am skeptical that Bedouin house demolition is at all equivalent to freezing settlements, as Glick seems to suggest. As Baskin points out, the Israeli government rarely pursues full enforcement of the law against settlers, even those guity of violence against innocent Palestinians. While Glick is successful at the beginning of the debate at portraying his views as naive or wishy-washy, her Ann Coulter-esque interjections get obnoxious by the end.

The bigger story making headlines in the Middle East today is President Obama's speech at al-Azhar in Cairo.

Obama spoke about several topics ranging from Afghanistan to Iraq, Israeli security to women's rights. The speech showed an understanding of the Arab mentality, from speaking about Islam instead of just Arabs, to using turns of phrase common in Arabic. The silence of the audience when Obama spoke about Holocaust denial was palpable and awkward, but perhaps necessary. Obama was able to speak realistically and uncompromisingly about the US perspective, even when doing so didn't earn him the applause of the audience. Refining the Arab world's expectations of the president was a key objective to meet in today's speech and Obama was ultimately successful. While his speech may not play well among the far right in the US, reaction in the Arab world is likely to be positive.

Obama also re-iterated his demand that Israel freeze settlements. He demonstrated the ability to exert pressure on the Israeli government without turning the moment into all-out Israel bashing. While he made few concrete demands from the Islamic world, such demands are likely to be more effective in the atmosphere of reconciliation promoted by the speech. Reception in Israel was lukewarm, but the speech was not a more significant blow to the US-Israel relationship than last week's call to end settlement expansion. It did, however, make a lot of Israelis nevous.

Regardless, it was a welcome change for an American president to be welcomed in the heart of the Arab world, and his choice to speak at a university, to young students, was a dead-on strategy for a region where most of the population is young, and a country where the youth are pushing for a more transparent Egyptian system. The connection between Obama's call for democratic reform and the policies of the Mubarak regime were not hard to make for the audience. Hopefully, Obama's success today will be followed by further reconciliation, and ultimately action towards development and peace in the Middle East.


1) "Israeli Settlers Attack Palestinians in West Bank,"
Times of India, June 1, 2009.

2) Barak Ravid, "Israel Praises Obama Speech, But Says it's Security Paramount,"
Haaretz, June 3, 2009.

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