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Chomsky: Do We Face a Real Confrontation with Israel?

We should be cautious about the idea that Obama will promote a serious regional peace initiative for the Middle East.

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Obama's June 4 Cairo address to the Muslim world kept pretty much to his well-honed "blank slate" style - saying very little of substance, but in a personable manner that allows listeners to write on the slate what they want to hear.  CNN captured its spirit in headlining a report "Obama looks to reach the soul of the Muslim world." Obama had announced the goals of his address in an interview with NYT columnistThomas Friedman (June 3): "`We have a joke around the White House,' the president said. ‘We're just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working -- and nowhere is truth-telling more important than the Middle East'." The White House commitment is most welcome, but it is useful to see how it translates into practice.

Obama admonished his audience that it is easy to "point fingers... But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security."

Turning to truth, there is a third side, with a decisive role throughout: the US.  But that participant in the conflict is unmentioned.  The omission is understood to be normal and appropriate, hence unmentioned:  Friedman's column is headlined "Obama speech aimed at both Arabs and Israelis"; the front-page Wall St. Journal report on Obama's speech appears under the heading "Obama Chides Israel, Arabs In His Overture to Muslims." Other reports are the same.  The convention is understandable on the doctrinal principle that though the US government sometimes makes "mistakes," its intentions are by definition benign.  Washington has always sought desperately to be an honest broker, only yearning to advance peace and justice.  The doctrine trumps truth, of which there is no hint in the speech or the mainstream coverage.

Obama once again echoed Bush's advocacy of two states, without saying what he means by the phrase "Palestinian state." His intentions are clarified not only by crucial omission, but also by his one explicit criticism of Israel: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop" (my emphasis).  That is, Israel should live up to Phase I of the 2003 Road Map, though the truth is that Obama has ruled out even steps of the Bush I variety to withdraw from participation in these crimes.

The operative words are "legitimacy" and "continued." By omission, Obama indicates that he accepts Bush's "vision": the vast existing settlement project and infrastructure is "legitimate," thus ensuring that the phrase "Palestinian state" means "fried chicken."

Even-handed, Obama also had an admonition for the Arab States: they "must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities." Plainly, it cannot be a meaningful "beginning" if Obama continues to reject its core principles: implementation of the international consensus.  But to do so is evidently not Washington's "responsibility" in Obama's vision, presumably because the US has no responsibilities other than to persist in its traditional vocation of doing good.

On democracy, Obama said that "we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election" - as in January 2006, when Washington turned at once to severe punishment of the Palestinians because it did not like the outcome of the peaceful election.  Obama politely refrained from comment about his host, President Mubarak, one of the most brutal dictators in the region, though elsewhere he has had some illuminating words about him.  As he was about to board the plane to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the two "moderate" Arab states, "Mr. Obama signaled that while he would mention American concerns about human rights in Egypt, he would not challenge Mr. Mubarak too sharply, calling him a `force for stability and good' in the Middle East... Mr. Obama said he did not regard Mr. Mubarak as an authoritarian leader. `No, I tend not to use labels for folks,' Mr. Obama said. The president noted that there had been criticism `of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt,' but he also said that Mr. Mubarak had been `a stalwart ally, in many respects, to the United States'" (Jeff Zeleyna and Michael Slackman, NYT, June 4).

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