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Does Obama’s speech in Cairo signal change?

Obama’s recent comments on Palestine have shaken the Israeli government

Issue No. 2155

The sight of a US president receiving a standing ovation from students at Cairo university is not one we could have imagined a couple of years ago.

So it was symbolic that Barack Obama chose the Egyptian capital to launch his “new vision for peace” last week.

It was from Cairo that the Israeli foreign minister announced the start of the month-long assault on Gaza last December.

If George Bush had attempted to speak at the campus it would have been burnt to the ground. Obama was instead greeted with much applause.

Some things have not changed. Obama reiterated his commitment to the “war on terror”, warned Iran over its nuclear programme and justified the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Yet the speech also outlined a departure from the tone adopted by George Bush in his famous State of the Union address in 2002.

Where Bush spoke of the “axis of evil” and “crusades”, Obama praised the Islamic religion and the historic contribution of Muslims.

Obama also carefully distanced himself from the debacle in Iraq

He even acknowledged that the US was wrong to overthrow the popular Mossadeq government in Iran in 1953 and appealed for negotiations.

But the most dramatic change of tone came in Obama’s statements on Israel.

After setting out why the US supports Israel, he said, “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...

“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.”

In a remarkable passage he added, “For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation.

“But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the centre of America’s founding.”

There are two messages here. The first is that Palestinians must lay down their weapons. But he is also saying that Palestinians are suffering as black slaves did.

Obama’s speech has caused deep unease inside Israel’s government.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the recent elections promising to reject even limited statehood for the Palestinians.

His ambassador had been running around Washington waving bits of paper signed by Bush that he claimed allow more Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Obama has told the settlers they had to stop and begin easing the siege on Palestinians in the West Bank.

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “Netanyahu now understands what he already knew before the speech: the moment of political reckoning that he so feared is now rapidly approaching.

“Netanyahu will have to decide over the coming weeks whom he would rather pick a fight with: the powerful US administration or his own coalition and members of his party.”

The tension between Israel and the US highlights the deep problems for imperialism in the region.

Obama must try and reconcile tensions between the US and its Arab allies.

This friction is caused mainly by popular anger over Palestine, but also by the deep hatred of the US-backed regimes among ordinary Arabs.

Israel cares little about what happens in Afghanistan, or which governments rule in the Arab world. It has the comfort of a powerful army and some 50 nuclear warheads.

But these issues matter deeply to the US and to the rest of the West.

Would another Israeli assault on Gaza mean more mass demonstrations in Cairo and other Arab capitals?

The popular revulsion over Israel’s war on Gaza has shaken America’s allies – now the Arab regimes are demanding that the US reigns in the Israelis.

Obama’s speech is a recognition of the deep problems faced by US imperialism.

He no doubt hopes he can charm his way out of this sticky situation.

However, the ultimate test is what happens in practice.

But what is significant is that it will be the Israelis who are desperate for Obama to fail.


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Tue 9 Jun 2009, 18:52 BST
Issue No. 2155
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