President Obama gave a 53-minute speech at Cairo University on Thursday, calling for cooperation between the Muslim world, Israel and the U.S, using his personal story to draw parallels among the cultures. It was concise and forceful, emphasizing “justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” While he made immediate suggestions for peace between Israel and Palestine, he did not define a concrete set of action beyond proposing a two-state solution.
His remarks included as a call to peace from Hamas and a plea for Israeli settlements on the West Bank to cease expanding. His ultimate goal was clearly presented: “The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.”
An official government statement lauded Obama’s speech and optimistically called for negotiated peace, but remained firm in regard to solidifying Israel’s security. The cryptic final sentence states: “Israel is obligated to peace and will do as much as possible to help expand the circle of peace, while taking into consideration our national interests, the foremost of which is security.” Likewise, the statement did not reference Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Within the government opinion was divided. Israeli President Shimon Peres commended Obama’s vision of “sustainable peace in the Middle East” and Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the speech a “direct, significant and brave appeal.”
On the other hand, key policy maker Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that settlement construction in the West Bank will continue and has yet to endorse a two-state solution. Other politicians noted that terrorism has not ceased, so a proper stage has not been set for the sort of negotiations Obama suggests. Furthermore, Obama never used the word “terrorism.” Many Israelis worry that he has deemphasized and failed to prioritize the ongoing threat of violent Palestinian militia groups.
‘Israel praises Obama speech, but says its security paramount’ ran the lead headline in Haaretz, the oldest newspaper in Israel. Haaretz is known for its highbrow readership, influence and extensive website.
In some instances, the speech has given way to political infighting. Government officials point to the purportedly irreconcilable trajectories of Obama’s agenda for cooperation and Netanyahu’s emphasis on national security. Some columnists have attacked Netanyahu for his indecisiveness, and demand an immediate stance and plan of action. “The prime minister must decide whether he’s going with Likud’s more rightist members, or with Obama,” writes Attila Somfalvi of Ynetnews, the web version of Israel’s largest daily newspaper. The opinion piece is brusquely titled ‘Bibi, wake up.’
Especially caustic were the Jewish settlers, who claim that Obama has unfairly sided with the Arabs. The Yesha Council, an organization representing the West Bank, reacted strongly to the speech. “In many respects the speech pandered to Islam; it emphasized ‘Hussein’ more than it did ‘Barak’,” says Council Chairman Danny Dayan.
Some Israelis were offended with what they believe to be vague references to South African apartheid and the U.S. civil rights movement in the speech. They believe that Obama is comparing the mistreatment of Arabs in Israel to these histories of discrimination. This is a further manifestation of skepticism of Obama’s familiarity with the status quo.
Overall, though, Israeli newspapers have coolly praised the speech. Though they have kept a cautious distance from outright endorsement, they have objectively recognized that the speech is historic and represents a new stage of enhanced communication in the Middle East.
‘Gov’t shares Obama’s wish for Arab-Israeli recognition’ headlined the lead story for the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s oldest English-language daily newspaper.
Some columnists immediately rejected Obama’s ideas. “In so painstakingly calibrated an address, delivered in so vital and urgent a cause, this was a stark failure, and one Obama should himself recognize the need to rectify as he translates his talk into action,” writes David Horovitz of the Post.
Newspapers were cautious, cautioning that the speech was interpreted variously throughout the country and struck different nerves. Only time will tell if Israel will accept Obama’s proposals, after the public digests the its implications and the politicians define their positions.