With a newly released poll finding that 60 percent of Israelis “don’t trust … President [Obama] to consider and protect Israel’s interests during his efforts to improve relations between America and the Muslim world,” and that 55 percent of Israelis say Obama leans in favor of the Palestinians and only 5 percent that he favors Israel, there wasn’t much in Obama’s Cairo speech today to allay the concerns.
True, he spoke ringing words about the Holocaust. Addressing the Muslim world as a whole, he even took a swipe at widespread Muslim Holocaust denial, saying, “Six million Jews were killed — more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful.” But he followed with a classic “on the other hand” that led into: “it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” The moral equivalency, the implied connection, is clear; both forms of denial are bad, one balances the other.
Except that this is a severe moral distortion, and not only because of the different magnitudes involved. Whereas the Jews of Europe were in no way responsible for their victimization, the Palestinians’ suffering was caused by their own and the Arab world’s rejection of the state granted them by the 1947 UN Partition Plan and was wholly avoidable simply by accepting that state. Indeed, Obama went on to compound the falsification by referring to “the displacement brought by Israel’s founding.” If it was time to be honest, why couldn’t Obama have challenged the widespread Arab and Muslim myth — part of what has caused ongoing bloodshed and suffering for all — of the inherent injustice of Israel’s creation, which need not have entailed the displacement of a single individual?
But with moral equivalency as the keynote, Obama went on to admonish the Palestinians that they “must abandon violence,” since “resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed” — and then censured Israel for alleged sins presented as equivalent to terrorism. No one was surprised that these included settlements, which, to be fair to Obama, have long figured in U.S. diplomacy and pronouncements — both Republican and Democratic — as the equivalent of suicide bombings, rocket barrages, and the like.
Obama’s charge sheet against Israel, though, also included that it “must live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society” and the assertion that “the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security.” Here it must simply be said that without the Palestinian “resistance through violence and killing,” and systematic incitement that fosters it, no Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank or border controls on Gaza would exist, and to treat these as equivalent is to portray aggression and self-defense, crime and policing, as one and the same, morally indistinguishable.
Nor did Israel’s explicit offers — in addition to the UN’s original offer — of Palestinian statehood in 2000 and 2007, in both cases summarily rejected by the Palestinian side, figure anywhere in Obama’s speech. Earlier in the address he said, “I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors.” This noble sentiment wasn’t enough for him to summon the courage to tell his Muslim audience — which wouldn’t have liked it; but wasn’t candor supposed to be the point? — that a lack of statehood in the West Bank and Gaza is by now a reality the Palestinians must lay completely at their own door.
True, in addition to Holocaust denial and Palestinian violence, Obama mentioned other failings of the Muslim world. He spoke of “violent extremism” as a whole, slaughter in Darfur, Iran’s push for nuclear weapons, lack of democracy, religious intolerance, deficits of literacy, development, and women’s rights. Contrasting all this with Israel’s democracy may have been too harsh for his audience. But failing to mention that Israel exists in an environment where all those things — violence, intolerance, the nuclear threat — are realities to be contended with, while characterizing Israel as committing equivalent wrongs and creating obstacles to peace when since the early 1990s its policies have shown a yearning for peace verging on the desperate and suicidal, does nothing to assuage destructive attitudes and instead helps perpetuate them.
And if Obama’s reference to Israeli settlements was de rigueur, it was also — in keeping with the pressure tactics of the last few weeks — exceptional in its harshness. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” he said, adding, “This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.” Contrast this with Obama’s earlier kid-glove treatment of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas regarding incitement — “I also mentioned to President Abbas in a frank exchange that it was very important to continue to make progress in reducing the incitement and anti-Israel sentiments that are sometimes expressed in schools and mosques and in the public square” — and you start to see why most Israelis have lost trust in this president.
Abbas and all other Muslims are told that it might be better were they to change their ways in some regards. Israel’s treatment is much rougher. Supplicate the dictatorships, slam the democracy — isn’t that what moral equivalency is for?