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ANALYSIS: Obama’s words worry Israel’s backers
During a major address in Egypt on Thursday, President Obama reached out in friendship to Muslims around the world and distanced himself from Israeli policies more than any other president in decades.
Although Mr. Obama said the U.S. bond with Israel is “unbreakable,” analysts pointed to subtle but significant shifts in language that indicated that Mr. Obama was not in lock step with the Israeli government on issues including Iran and Palestinian grievances.
“This is a very different approach than other presidents have used,” said Lee H. Hamilton, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and co-chairman of the 2006 Iraq Study Group.
Mr. Obama won praise from many analysts, including Mr. Hamilton, for speaking out in Cairo against Muslims who deny the Holocaust or indulge in anti-Semitic behavior.
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But he also worried some Israel supporters by seeming to equate the Palestinian narrative of suffering after the founding of Israel in 1948 with the Jewish narrative of centuries of persecution that culminated in the Nazi massacre of 6 million Jews.
“For more than 60 years, [the Palestinians] have endured the pain of dislocation,” Mr. Obama said. “Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation.
“So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.”
Mr. Obama repeated his insistence that Israel stop adding to Jewish settlements in territory controlled by Arabs before 1967 — a break with the policies of the George W. Bush administration, which approved thickening of existing settlements. Although Mr. Obama called for Palestinians and other Muslims to end violence, he never used the word “terror” or “terrorism” to refer to their violent acts.
He also became the first U.S. president to acknowledge the U.S. role in a CIA coup that overthrew the prime minister of Iran in 1953.
Robert Malley, a senior official in the Clinton administration dealing with Arab-Israeli issues, said what struck him most was Mr. Obama’s equating of Israel and Palestinian aspirations for statehood.
“This is a recognition that the Palestinian plight did not begin in 1967 [when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza],” said Mr. Malley, who now directs Middle East programs for the International Crisis Group. “There’s a human and political problem that began with the creation of the state of Israel” in 1948.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was visiting Washington, praised the speech. “It is clear from the audience’s response how effectively and precisely his words were addressed,” he said.
In a written statement, Mr. Barak added: “It was a straightforward, significant and courageous address which outlined his vision and the universal values he wishes to share with the Muslim world. … We welcome the president’s commitment to the state of Israel’s security and his clear call to accept and integrate her into the region.”
However, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, objected to the juxtaposition of Mr. Obama’s reference to the Holocaust and the Palestinian experience since the establishment of Israel.
“The Palestinians are suffering because Arab and Palestinian leaders rejected every opportunity that would have brought them their own independence,” Mr. Hoenlein said.
He also criticized Mr. Obama for demanding that Israel stop settlement expansion while not making specific demands of Arab states for gestures toward Israel, such as the right for the Israeli national airline, El Al, to overfly Arab land.
Mr. Hoenlein said Mr. Obama’s conciliatory remarks toward Iran would not sit well among Arab leaders who fear Iran’s nuclear advances.
“You have to distinguish between those who are willing to work with us and those who aren’t,” Mr. Hoenlein said.
Previous U.S. administrations have acknowledged Palestinian suffering and U.S. interference in Iran but not in such explicit terms.
President Clinton, for example, addressed Palestinian leaders and legislators in Gaza in 1998 and spoke of the Palestinians’ “history of dispossession and dispersal” but spent much of the speech urging Palestinians to stop anti-Israel incitement.
Mr. Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine K. Albright, apologized in a speech in 2000 for the coup that overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh.
However, Mr. Obama, speaking a week before Iranian presidential elections, was the first U.S. president to acknowledge the U.S. role in derailing Iran’s path toward democracy more than a half-century ago.
“In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government,” Mr. Obama said.
Funded and encouraged by the CIA, Iranian monarchists removed Mr. Mossadegh — who had nationalized a British-owned oil company. The coup reinstalled Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, an autocratic ruler who was subsequently overthrown in a popular revolution in 1979.
Mr. Hamilton said Mr. Obama’s words would be taken as a “signal” of a U.S. desire to ease 30 years of hostility with Iran. “The Iranians have wanted us to come clean on Mossadegh, and the president did that.”
Mr. Obama also laid out U.S. grievances against Iran, which have not been admitted by the Islamic government.
“Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians,” Mr. Obama said. However, he added, “Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.”
Some Middle East specialists questioned whether Mr. Obama can deal with stubborn regional conflicts more successfully than his predecessors.
“This is a window into how he sees the region rather than what he wants to do,” said Aaron Miller, a former U.S. negotiator and author of “The Much Too Promised Land.” “This guy is very empathetic, but I don’t see a strategy” for achieving U.S. goals.
• Eli Lake contributed to this report.
About the Author
Barbara Slavin is assistant managing editor for World and National Security at The Washington Times and the author of a 2007 book on Iran, titled “Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.” Before joining The Times in July 2008, she was senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today. She has accompanied three secretaries of state ...
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