By Aaron Marcus l September 25, 2011
President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly.
(Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)
As tension between Israelis and Palestinians reach startlingly high levels, President Obama delivered an address at the United Nations on September 21, attempting to calm heightened animosity between the two people and discuss America’s vision for the future of the Middle East.
The President first reiterated his support for the Arab Spring and stepped up his criticism of a Syrian government that has been murdering its citizens. He was cautious in his original call for sanctions against Syria and waited five months to call for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. The slow response to Syria’s revolution that began in March took a sharp turn on Wednesday when the president told representatives at the UN’s annual opening session to sanction the Syrian regime imploring them, “Now is the time for the United Nations Security Council to sanction the Syrian regime, and to stand with the Syrian people.”
Calling out the Assad government’s crimes against the Syrian people is laudable, and Obama’s caution in blindly supporting the Syrian rebels is also a step in the right direction, particularly in light of his visionless material support of Libyan and Egyptian rebels, which could eventually undermine American security in the region. However, such rebel support would anger Syria’s ally, Iran.
In his address, Obama once again went light on the Islamist regime in Tehran. While he repeated that there is no evidence Iran is developing a peaceful nuclear program, his enfeebled response was to once again meet them with calls of further pressure and isolation.
This is the same position the United States has taken since the mid-1990’s and yet it has consistently failed to stop Iran’s quest to develop nuclear capabilities. Without even strong rhetoric against the production of nuclear weapons in Iran, President Obama’s words were an international display of American weakness. He preceded his critique of Tehran with a formidable commitment to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
The placement of this policy in the president’s speech is mind-boggling. First he states that the international community should work toward living in a nuclear free world. Then he acknowledges that Iran is in the midst of doing the exact opposite. The negligent START Treaty with Russia could further weaken U.S. influence and potentially create a world where foreign powers possess technological advantage over America. There is no need for the President of the United States to pander before the members of the UN General Assembly by discussing the dismantling of American nuclear power, while the Iranian government and other foreign enemies continue to develop atomic weapons. It is unknown whether Iran or North Korea would use their nuclear weapons; however, the greatest cause for concern is their proliferation to terrorist organizations. Since the State Department considers both Iran and North Korea state sponsors of terrorism, the possibility of any terrorist organization acting as a proxy for anti-Western governments is not unlikely. Without a strong deterrence to a potential nuclear or biological attack, the balance of power could easily shift.
Throughout most of the speech, President Obama predominately stuck to what has become a litany of his Middle East policy, including support for Arab revolutions, talk about American troop withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and the call for sanctions against oppressive governments. Where his policy deviated from his usual script was in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The most important part of his speech to the United Nations General Assembly was whether or not the United States would support a unilateral declaration of independence from the Palestinian Authority (PA).
PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, will submit a proposal to the United Nations’ Security Council to grant the Palestinian Authority full membership rights in the United Nations, a move that would grant the PA official State status. In an effort to preserve a long-standing tradition of positive American – Israeli relations, President Obama reiterated in his address the reason why the United States is opposed to such a declaration, saying:
“Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations — if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians — not us –- who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and on security, on refugees and Jerusalem.”
This is the first time since Barack Obama has taken office that his stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not explicitly demanded concessions from Israel. In June 2009, for example, the president delivered his first Muslim outreach address at Cairo University that commenced what would be considered in many political circles as the first “anti-Israel” White House since David Ben-Gurion declared Israel an independent Jewish State in 1948. In Cairo, the newly elected president stated:
“It is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. 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. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”
Then in a speech entitled “A New Chapter in American Diplomacy” delivered in May 2011, President Obama reiterated the U.S. backing of the Palestinian Authority. He called for the borders of Israel and Palestine, to be “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”
The Obama administration seemed to concede that Palestinian terrorism had nothing to do with the ongoing conflict. As opposed to calling for an absolute end to violence from Palestinian terrorist organizations, Obama took the hard line left-wing approach that Israeli cities in the disputed territory of Judea and Samaria are the primary obstacle to peace in the region.
On Wednesday that approach finally changed, President Obama confirmed that peace could not be imposed upon the region and that an agreement between the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority is the only sustainable route to peace. Obama, also for the first time, recognized that the Jewish people have an historic right to the land of Israel, a deviation from his recurring claim that the Jewish people had been given the land of Israel as a result of the Holocaust. A notion of history that Arab countries and the Palestinian Authority consistently claim.
It would not be too cynical to suggest that with this apparent 180 degree turn on his Israel policy that President Obama was now in full re-election and damage control mode blatantly attempting to shore up his Jewish base of support, which has developed serious fissures since his 2008 campaign. Obama told his UN audience, “We believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day. Let us be honest with ourselves: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, look out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and fresh memories of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they are. Those are facts. They cannot be denied. The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth.”
While this rhetoric from the president is encouraging, it is highly unlikely it will become the official policy of the Obama White House. It is solely a political move by a president who is losing favor in the eyes of Israel supporters in the United States. Less than a year earlier, when speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama recommended the idea of a Palestinian State at the forthcoming 2011 meeting of the UN General Assembly, when he said:
“We should draw upon the teachings of tolerance that lie at the heart of three great religions that see Jerusalem’s soil as sacred. This time we should reach for what’s best within ourselves. If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine.”
Was it a naive and inexperienced president that opened Pandora’s Box at last year’s UN session or simply a president with anti-Israeli tendencies continuing his program of Muslim outreach?
Well, on September 13th, Republican Bob Turner (NY-9) defeated Democrat David Weprin in a special congressional election to fill disgraced Congressman Weiner’s vacant seat. Turner’s victory was historic for a multitude of reasons, however, the primary reasons were due to serious disaffection in a district that is 75 percent Jewish. It was the first time since 1922 that a Republican won that seat. While democrats tried to spin the loss as a result of Weprin’s vote to legalize Gay Marriage in New York and the poor economy, the democratic candidate himself had a different take on his defeat. When discussing the election outcome with reporters he said that his “opponent somewhat successfully made it a referendum on Obama. I don’t know if it was just Israel, but Israel certainly was a major part of it.”
The coming weeks and months could reveal President Obama’s true position on the Middle East. I say this with a hint of hesitance because, with his re-election at stake, I am not at all certain he will continue to take a stance that could cost him more votes and campaign contributions. At best, his address before the UN General Assembly projects an erratic Mideast policy.
Now, however, the failure of Abbas’s proposal to become a full member of the United Nations and an internationally recognized country, could initiate a rise in violence in the volatile Middle East. If Palestinian radicals storm Israeli communities in the West Bank or resurrect intifada style violence against Israel, where will the Obama administration stand? Obama’s address to the United Nations, a speechwriter’s contribution to history, was an improvement from past rhetoric and welcomed by those who believe in a strong bond between Israel and the United States. But will this ostensibly new commitment to Israel last and more importantly, is it too little too late?
Aaron Marcus is a graduate of the National Journalism Center having served his internship as an editorial assistant at The Washington Times. He is currently a columnist for The Daily Targum at Rutgers University where he is an undergraduate student. Mr. Marcus is a contributor to