Obama's historic speech the platform for
Middle Eastern peace?
By Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel
June 14, 2009
The birth of a "new beginning" with the Muslim
world, hoped as a new beginning for the elusive
It was no secret that improving ties with the Muslim
world was to become a core component of US President
Barack Obama's new administration. On 4th June
president Obama delivered his highlyanticipated
speech at Cairo University, where a "new beginning"
for ties with the Muslim world based on "mutual
interest and mutual respect» took on strong
emphasis. A strong symbol of this new start is the
peace process between the Israel and the
Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian
However, as we have seen many times before, emotive
words and real action and tough decision making do
not always translate to the same thing.
Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel, senior UK Editor
Furthermore, by looking at the greater whole of the
Middle East, will parts such as Kurdistan miss out?
One of the greatest historical problems in the
Middle East has been the establishment of elusive
peace between Israel and the Palestinians that has
become almost symbolic of the US relationship with
the Muslim world. Obama's seemingly new tough
approach with Israel signalled a new phase in the
peace process. Successfully achieving peace between
the Jews and Arabs and ultimately the establishment
of a Palestinian state may well prove to be the
platform on which Obama is judged at the end of his
The speech was refreshing, warm and conciliatory.
Any speech that even grabs the mood and attention of
customary US nemesis, speaks volumes about the
influence and importance of the speech. However,
deep and powerful rhetoric is by no means a measure
on how such broad goals will be achieved in reality.
New ties with the Muslim
A frequent theme of Obama's speech was his emphasis
on the positivity and role of Islam on the global
stage. He pointed out the significance of Islam on
contemporary history and human development and
indeed the part that Islam has played in America's
history, while referring to civilisations "debt" to
Relations with the Islamic world under George W.
Bush and indeed before that became strained and
introduced dangerous levels of animosity and
mistrust. The perception of the US in the last
several years has been tarnished by its foreign
policy, with many Middle Eastern views portraying
the US as "anti-Islamist".
Obama downplayed such beliefs of an ideological
clash and stated "America and Islam are not
exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead,
they overlap, and share common principles -
principles of justice and progress; tolerance and
the dignity of all human beings." Obama was
evidently keen to eradicate somewhat negative
stereotypes that surround both Islam and the US,www.ekurd.net
the cycle of distrust that had undermined common
Obama frequently highlighted a great respect for
Islam while aiming to show that there was more
common ground than differences.
The whole is greater than
the sum of the parts
From the outset, Obama has clearly been keen to
reach out to the greater Middle East. A common theme
of his tenure as president is that the US will aim
to "listen rather than dictate" to the Muslims.
Indeed, the Middle East is as much of an interlinked
web as ever, and no solution or stability in any one
country will achieve the greater goals of the
Peace and success in the Middle East can not be
achieved without a broad consensus amongst the
social mosaic of the region. The American experience
in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that individual
achievements will only ever be hampered by greater
obstacles in the surrounding environment.
More importantly, US relations in the Middle East
have reached a vicious and perilous cycle, which
Obama has been clearly intent on breaking.
Obama tried to win the hearts of the Islamic
audiences by making references to texts from the
Quran, and by emphasising that with a "proud
tradition of tolerance", the positive role that
Islam plays in solutions rather than as a source of
Ties with Israel and
In his quest to turn a new page with the greater
Muslim world, there can perhaps be no greater
starting point than resolving the historical
Peace between Israel and the Palestinians formed a
core focus of the Bush era, however, the much-hyped
peace road map never really started.
Obama speech echoed a neutral stance with regards to
the present Israeli-Palestinian standoff. The
Islamic view of America has long been defined by the
strong historical support of the Jews, seemingly at
the expense of Arab suffering and the deprivation of
This notion has only served to add to the view that
US foreign policy was hypocritical and unequivocal.
In his keynote speech, Obama once again reaffirmed
the strong bond between the US and Israel, which is
"?based upon cultural and historical ties, and the
recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish
homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot
be denied." However,www.ekurd.net
was clearly keen to ensure that Palestinian rights
and sufferings were treated on equal footing,
describing the situation of the Palestinians as
"intolerable", who he believes "endure the daily
humiliations - large and small - that come with
Shifting US ties with
Many have pointed to a shift in US policy towards
Israel. However, this policy is needed if the
overall "reach out" of his administration to the
Muslims is to be taking seriously.
It remains to be seen how much political or public
pressure, the US government is willing to place on
their historical ally in the region.
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, visiting
Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the back of
Obama's speech, reiterated that the US views a
two-state solution as the «only viable political
solution» to the conflict.
A key note of Obama speech on the peace process was
the firm need to halt all Israeli settlement
building activity in the occupied West Bank, which
is deemed illegal under International law.
This caused a potential confrontation with Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who previously
vowed to at least to accommodate "natural growth"
building in the settlements. Furthermore, Netanyahu
and his cabinet have appeared reserved to endorse
the principle of a Palestinian state in public, much
to the contrary of American support to the idea.
Netanyahu is due to deliver a key speech later this
week, which will go a long way to underlining the
path that his Israeli government will pursue. Either
way, the Israeli government will need to make
concessions in terms of cabinet personnel or policy,
as they realign with the new realities in
Many in Israel are evidently concerned about the new
shift of support from the US government. With Obama
placing equal focus on both the Israelis and
Palestinians, many will now be looking at the
political movements and initiatives shown in each
camp. On the back of the historical speech by Obama,
there is now a danger for either side to be singled
out depending on the steps they undertake.
Both the Israelis and Palestinians have been
cautiously warm to the renewed efforts called for in
Moreover, Israel may need to make greater
concessions not just in the face of US pressure, but
also in their quest to win greater endorsement from
the Arab world and particularly support against the
growing Iranian nuclear threat.
The US has been keen to emphasise to their Israeli
counterparts that the resolution of the Iranian
nuclear issue must come hand-in-hand with the peace
process between the Israelis and Palestinians. What
is certain is that no side can act against the
Tehran government without a broad support of the
greater Middle East.
Any Israeli unilateral action on Iran, as much as
its nuclear programme is also feared by many Arab
regimes in the region, would go a long way to
ensuring further isolation of Israel.
The need for tough measures
For Obama's brave new policies to become a reality,
the US government must go beyond strong rhetoric and
mixed this up with tough action and decisions.
For example, while the US have been insistent that
no Israeli settlement building continues, what will
they do if Israeli continues their justification of
further construction in one form or another?
Furthermore, the US should be clear on their exact
policy regarding settlement building, so that there
is no doubt or misinterpretation to suit one side.
Does opposition to settlement building mean future
settlement expansions or the presence of these
In his speech, Obama was signalling the prospects of
a new definition of ties with Hamas, if Hamas
refuses to change its policy towards Israel and does
not become an apart of a new unity Palestinian
government, then how will the US react to the entity
that affectively rules the Gaza strip?
If the peace process goes down a productive and
positive path, then the stance of the US will look
after itself, however, such similar paths in the
past have seldom followed such positive motions. The
position of the US will come under much scrutiny, if
key differences emerge between Israel and the
Palestinians or if indeed outright violence erupts
Obama is correct in that no ideology or principle,
such as democracy can or should be imposed on a
nation. It is indeed down to the real will of a
nation, on what they choose to adopt or how they
want to be ruled.
By that token, Israelis and Palestinians must make
the real concessions and choose what kind of a
future they want, but obviously the right US policy
has great bearings on the decisions and directions
taking by each nation. One thing that is certain is
that the current status-quo will serve no side.
All sides, particularly Israel must realise that
peace measures should not just be political, more
opportunities and economic progression in the
Palestinian territories will be a major influence to
sway Palestinian sentiments.
The dangers for the Kurds
One side that has clearly benefited from the US
foreign policy of recent years are the Kurds. A
pro-American, democratic and secular nation does not
come around too often and the US and Kurds have
developed positive ties. However, many Kurds have
grown disillusioned at lack of US support or
appreciation of these bonds.
Clearly, when one takes a greater view of a subject
matter, certain components that make up key parts of
the whole, may miss out.
Too often in the past, the US has neglected
so-called "smaller" actors to attain their bigger
strategic goals with the perceived more dominant
powers in the region.
The US must not forget that that as the fourth
largest ethnic group in the Middle East, the Kurds
deserve recognition as a firm actor in the region
and to be credited for their recent gains, their
path towards prosperity and democratisation.
Too often reach-outs in the Middle East have been
represented by Jews and Arabs. Reach out to the
Muslim world, includes all such parties, including
Kurdistan, which is after all a predominantly Muslim
However, there is an inherent fear that the US can
not keep all sides happy, which is next to
impossible and as a result the Kurds have to be
careful no to over rely on fickle foreign policies
in the region, be it from the US or neighbouring
By keeping the "major" parties happy in the Middle
East, the US may well choose to do this at the
expense of others. The Kurds have to ensure that
they achieve self-sufficiency for their experience
and reinforce their region based on a future that is
not necessarily dependent on Western powers whose
support is conditional and reserved at the best of
Support against extremism
Clearly, the war of the modern era has been the
battle against terrorism and extremism. This new
battlefield is one that is unconventional and
high-impact. As the last several years have
highlighted, it is one war that the might of ones
military alone can not win in the long-term.
The battle against fanaticism and fundamentalist can
be won on ideological grounds alone, by affectively
winning the hearts and minds of the populations or
uprooting the support base of these elements.
In Palestinian, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan,
it is indeed that battle against extremism that has
handicapped reconstruction, social advancement and
peace. In any of these cases, US can not win these
"battles" by merely imposing their ideology or
military might. In other words, they strongly need
the support of the greater Muslim "moderates" to
establish long-lasting peace.
It is only with the establishment of a strong
moderate support base, that the extremists can then
be uprooted. The previous cycle of animosity and
alienation between the US and Muslim powers, further
distanced such moderates and indirectly encouraged
support for more radical elements.
Obama was quick to emphasis that violence is not a
part of Islam. In the case of Palestine, Obama
stated that violence was a "dead end" and that
"resistance through violence and killing is wrong
and does not succeed".
Obama, although stating that America was not at war
with Islam, openly warned that the US would continue
to confront extremists that threatened its security.
This is a clear reminder that the US has not
necessarily gone soft on its determination to battle
radicals or employing a complete shift in foreign
policy, particularly against elements like the
Taliban in Afghanistan or the regime in Tehran.
About the Author
Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel is a London-based freelance
writer and analyst, whose primary focus and
expertise is on the Kurds, Iraq and Middle Eastern
current affairs. The main focus of his writing is to
promote peace, justice and increase awareness of the
diversity, suffering and at times explosive mix in
Iraq and the Middle East. You may
reach the author via email at: bashdar (at)
You can contact Bashdar at [email protected]
or visit his personal site at www.bashdar.co.uk.
does not take credit for and is not responsible for the content of news
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