Except for the Israeli right-wing… the political class in the rest of the region has responded either with measured optimism or scepticism.
The torrent of response generated by United States President, Barack Obama’s address on Thursday from Cairo University to a global Muslim audience shows that his speech has had a profound impact on the region’s collective psyche. It also mirrors the ideological fault lines that run deep across West Asia’s political landscape.
West Asia’s history of violence, hatred and divisions notwithstanding, Mr. Obama’s eloquence might have generated a powerful impulse which could help lay the foundations for a relatively less confrontationist political discourse in the region. Well timed and with a clear sense of history, Mr. Obama can now hope that his carefully chosen words, translated in 13 languages and viewed by a global television audience, would set the tone for a lengthy and complex process of diplomatic negotiations.
Except for the Israeli right-wing, which is shell-shocked by the American President’s decision to posit the Israeli and Palestinian causes on an equal footing, and airs that view publicly, the political class in the rest of the region has responded either with measured optimism or scepticism. Reservations about Mr. Obama’s commitment to translate his words into actions have been expressed by the Iranian establishment, the Lebanese Hizbollah and, to a lesser extent, by the Palestinian Hamas.
The Israeli Right has been stunned by the implied juxtaposition of the Holocaust, which the U.S. President unambiguously stated led to the horrific deaths of six million Jews, and the Nakba — the uprooting of nearly a million Palestinians during the 1948 Palestine war from areas later known as the state of Israel.
Ministers and lawmakers from the Israeli Right “expressed outrage on Thursday at the comparison of the suffering of the Palestinians to what Jews endured in the Holocaust,” the Israeli daily Jerusalem Post observed. In his Cairo speech, immediately after talking about the Holocaust, Mr. Obama said that “on the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland,” the daily wrote.
Representatives of Israeli settlers subjected Mr. Obama’s address to scathing criticism. “Hussein Obama chose to adopt the lying versions of the Arabs, which were always stated persistently and brazenly, over the Jewish truth, which is stated in a weak and stuttering voice,” the citizens committee of Judea and Samaria said in a statement.
However, there was lavish praise for him in some influential quarters in Israel. Columnist Gideon Levy poignantly wrote in the daily Haaretz that Mr. Obama “walked with wisdom and sensitivity between the Holocaust and the Nakba, between Israelis and Palestinians, between Americans and Arabs, between Christians, Jews and Muslims. How easy it is to imagine his predecessor, George Bush the Terrible, in the same position: a complete opposite.” Palestinian politicians belonging to President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah camp were quick to point out that Israelis should now reconcile with Washington’s inclination to treat them nearly, if not totally, on a par with the Palestinians. The speech broke with the “preceding partial American policy” in favour of Israel, said Nabil Abu Rudeina, Mr. Abbas’ spokesman. “The comments on the intolerable Palestinian situation are a message that Israel should understand well,” he said.
Fatah’s rival Hamas also saw positives in Mr. Obama’s Cairo’s address.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said Mr. Obama’s words reflected a “tangible change,” despite containing “many contradictions.” Kamal Habib, a former leader in Egypt of the Islamic Jihad, Hamas’ ally, said that Mr. Obama had delivered a “historic speech that laid the foundation for a relationship based on mutual respect.” Iran, an ally of Hamas, and Hizbollah insisted that Mr. Obama should match his words with concrete action. Speaking ahead of the U.S. President’s address, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “Changes should be made in practice and not by making nice speeches to world Muslims.”
Turkey, another regional heavyweight, and an initiator of an “Alliance of Civilisations” dialogue was effusive in its praise for Mr. Obama. Turkish President Abdullah Gul described Mr. Obama’s speech as “sincere, honest and realistic.” He added: “With the messages and assurances he gave today, the U.S. President showed that he is a constructive leader with whom Muslim countries can engage in partnership for peace and stability in the region.”
That Mr. Obama’s task ahead is not easy, is to state the obvious. An opinion poll broadcast on Israel Radio, a few hours ahead of the speech revealed that 47.1 per cent of Israelis believed that Mr. Obama preferred to protect Arab interests over Israel’s.
A new poll by the U.S-based WorldPublicOpinon.org found that a majority of Egyptians also distrusted the United States. Nearly 67 per cent of Egyptians believed that Washington played a negative role in the world. Around 76 per cent thought that the United States was out to weaken and divide the Islamic world.
Mr. Obama is well aware of the enormity of his task as he knows he has to move a mountain built on foundations of pessimism, fear and mistrust, in order to succeed. “There is so much fear, so much mistrust that has built up over the years,” Mr. Obama noted during his speech. Nevertheless with his address, the U.S. President might just have succeeded in planting a hardy kernel of hope.
As the debate on Mr. Obama’s address gathers momentum worldwide, there is promise that a new page in West Asia’s blood stained history may soon begin to turn.