David Usborne: President stings Israel with swipe at settlements

The view from Washington: White House shows willingness to ignore US Jewish lobby by risking confrontation with Netanyahu over Palestinian statehood

Share
Related Topics

The cords that connect Israel to the United States were under unprecedented strain last night after Barack Obama risked the wrath of the Jewish lobby in the US by publicly chiding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as part of his long-awaited address to the Muslim world at Cairo University in Egypt.

While the 55-minute speech before an invited audience of politicians, opposition leaders, scholars and human rights activists was billed as an effort by the President to soothe grievances of Muslims in the Middle East and beyond towards America, particular attention was always going to be paid to his remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Full though it was with rhetorical embellishments, the speech was blunt and plain-spoken. And Mr Obama showed he is willing, perhaps more than any US president before him, to ignore the Jewish lobby domestically by getting firm with Israel. Thus he made public a festering and personal argument with Mr Netanyahu, who is refusing to heed his demands for a halt to all new settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Underlining the Muslim references in his own life, including his Muslim father and grandfather, and quoting from the Holy Koran twice in his speech (and from the Holy Bible once), Mr Obama said the US-Israeli bonds were "well known" and "unbreakable". Then, however, he said forthrightly that Washington "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements".

The speech was delivered while most Americans were sleeping and its full impact on the President's home soil will take time to percolate. However, there were rumblings of dissatisfaction from Jewish groups and also conservative Republicans who accused the President of apologising for an alleged past bias against Muslims and the Arab world.

"This is another Obama 'blame America first' moment," fumed John Bolton, America's ambassador to the United Nations under George Bush. He said the speech rested on a deluded premise that America had long suffered poor relations with all Muslim countries. He noted the long-standing alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia, a country Mr Obama visited on Wednesday. In truth, Mr Obama executed a familiar oratorical trick, admitting in one breath that the US may in the past have succumbed too easily to stereotypes about Islam, while in the next telling his audience that Islam needed to stop making the same mistake with America. "That same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire," he said.

He was forthright in saying that nothing he was saying detracted from the real horror perpetrated by the terrorists in the US on 11 September 2001. "America can never tolerate violence by extremists," he added.

As with many in his target audience, there will be sceptics in the US who doubt Mr Obama's words, however finely spoken, will change very much on the ground. Indeed, there were no policy initiatives in the Cairo speech. "If talking is going to resolve all the problems in the world, Obama got a good bit of that out of the way today," wrote the New York Post's reporter in Cairo. "He talked and talked and talked and talked. And then kept talking."

But from the outset the risk was there that the delicate alchemy of America's relationship with Israel would be upset – for better or for worse – by this address. Some would argue, indeed, that only by changing that relationship, by showing a new willingness to take Israel to task, can Mr Obama hope to heal rifts with Arabs and Muslims globally.

Mr Bolton suggested that the President went too far in Cairo. "When you criticise your strongest ally in an environment like that, it is intended to send a message to that ally," he said.

But there was balance built into the Cairo speech and indeed the President's travel schedule. He deplored Holocaust deniers and said that threatening Israel with destruction was "deeply wrong". This morning, meanwhile, he is to visit the former Nazi concentration camp in Buchenwald, Germany.

Even so, the Anti-Defamation League in New York was among those voicing nervousness about Mr Obama's new direction. "Regarding the Israelis and Palestinians, it would have been important to hear the President put the conflict into its proper historical perspective: six Arab nations attacked Israel from day one and the occupation of Palestinian land was a product of Israel's wars of self-defence," the group said in a statement. It conceded however, that the speech was "ground-breaking and honest".

At the conservative Heritage Foundation, its spokesman, Rory Cooper, was disdainful. "President Bush also expressed these sentiments and was met with indignation from the left when doing so," he said.

Allies of the President ran quickly to his defence, however. The "blunt, honest address was absolutely critical in signaling a new era of understanding" said Senator John Kerry. He added: "He shattered stereotypes on both sides, reminded the West and the Muslim world of our responsibilities, and reaffirmed one of America's highest ideals and traditional roles: that those who seek freedom and democracy, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, have no greater friend than the United States of America."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Miliband created a crisis of confidence about himself within Labour when he forgot to mention the deficit in his party conference speech  

The political parties aren't all the same – which means 2015 will be a 'big-choice' election

Andrew Grice
 

Beware of the jovial buffoon who picks fights overseas

Boyd Tonkin
Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect