It’s doubtful that Barack Obama has ever delivered a speech as hotly awaited as the one he gave today in Cairo. I had hoped but not expected that, having already generated some credibility on the issue with his firm stance against Israeli settlements, the president would use the opportunity to address the cynical exploitation of the conflict by Arab regimes. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to hear the president tell the Arab States they “must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities.”
The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state; to recognize Israel’s legitimacy; and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.
Turning to Israel, Obama said that “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s.” While past presidents have recognized Palestinian national aspirations, this is the first time I’ve ever heard an American president assert an equivalency between the right of the Jewish and Palestinian people to a homeland. I think the significance of this framing will not be lost on the regional audience.
I also found this part of the speech particularly compelling, especially in light of the attendance — apparently as the result of U.S. pressure — of members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc:
America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments — provided they govern with respect for all their people.
This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.
I interpret this as a message to Hamas, Hezbollah and other Islamist groups: Eschew violence and we will support your participation in politics. And his comment about elections could be interpreted as a dig at his Mubarak regime hosts — indeed, an audience member responded to the line by shouting “We love you!”
Obviously, this was one speech. Obama’s personal appeal and soaring rhetoric won’t matter much if he doesn’t follow it up with practical policies to create movement across the rather ambitious range of issues that he outlined. Viewed as the opening of a dialogue, and a restatement of American purpose in the region, however, I think it was an enormously encouraging one.