As an American anthropologist currently residing in Spain, I managed to avoid much of the hyperbolic praise that many American pundits heaped on President Obama’s speech at Cairo University. Spanish commentators are not quite as taken with Obama as so many of their American counterparts are, especially in regard to his policies in the Middle East. Here I want to briefly comment on Obama’s discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian question. Two of Obama’s statements in particular have been widely celebrated as marking a new direction in American foreign policy in this area: one, that “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” and two, that the Palestinians should have “a state of their own.” These are fine sentiments indeed. They are also an almost exact reiteration of the central positions of the so-called Road Map proposed by Bush and his Quartet. Lest enthusiasm dull memory, that document explicitly stated that a) “the government of Israel [must freeze] all settlement activity consistent with the Mitchell report, including natural growth of settlements,” and b) “such a settlement, negotiated between the parties, will result in the emergence of an independent, democratic Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel.” We have, in other words, a restatement of the formal position of the Bush administration.
Moreover, by singling out “continued Israeli settlements” as the problem, Obama’s formulation (again closely hewing to the Bush plan) extends legitimacy to all existing Israeli settlements, thereby severely delimiting the possible configurations of any future Palestinian state. To find a reference for what such a state might look like, one need only go back to the (ultimately rejected) model negotiated by Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat under Clinton’s sponsorship: a state composed of multiple disconnected spatial enclosures, crossed by a network of “Jewish only” highways running between settlements, a Bantustan whose borders would be permanently subject to Israeli prerogatives and whose decreed military inferiority would render it constantly defenseless against Israeli intrusions and re-occupation. Instead of an open-air prison, Palestinians would achieve an open-air state, left completely open to the dictates and oversight of its neighbor. There is nothing in Obama’s comments on this issue that opens a door to an alternative vision.
Obama also made mention of the suffering of the Palestinian people, a point that many have taken as evidence of a more balanced approach to the region. What he actually said, however, points in a contrary direction. It is a masterful formulation, and bears closer scrutiny. “It is undeniable,” he noted, “that the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” A “homeland,” of course, is precisely not what the Palestinians have been pursuing. They are on it, and have long been so, except for those now living as refugees and whose return Obama is on the record as opposing. It is rather the Jewish people, not the Palestinians, whose history we recognize in the phrase “pursuit of a homeland,” a people whose moral claim to such a homeland is based in centuries of persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, a point Obama began with in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian situation. It is a mistake, however, to see Obama’s use of this expression to characterize the predicament of the Palestinians as evidence of “balance” or “evenhandedness.” What we find instead is that the terms of recognition by which Palestinian suffering can be acknowledged—the need for a homeland—are precisely those whose ultimate moral reference is the foundation of Israel. In other words, the moral force of Palestinian claims is made to rest upon the very example that has produced their dispossession.
Following this comment, Obama then proceeds to describe the plight of the Palestinians through a series of abstract nouns that evacuate Israel from the scene, and thus, from any responsibility: Palestinians have endured “dislocation” (by whom? by what means?); they endure “the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation” (as if the routine harassment and brutality exercised by the Israeli military against Palestinians were simply natural features accompanying that unfortunate condition identified abstractly as “occupation”). Nowhere in the speech is Israeli violence recognized. There is a brief moment, right as Obama turns to the situation in Gaza, where it seems like he will mention Israeli aggression. His one comment on Gaza begins, “And just as it devastates Palestinian families….” The word “devastates” leads one to believe that, finally, some mention of the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza will follow. Instead, Palestinian suffering again comes to be figured as the result of an abstract and agentless process: “And just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israeli security.” “Humanitarian crisis” has the ring of some sort of quasi-natural phenomenon, one for which culpability cannot be established. Moreover, here, as in all other references to Israel made during the speech, Israeli actions are never identified as a cause of suffering, but simply as part of the solution.
As with Bush’s Road Map, there is no call here for an end to Israeli violence. How could there be, when there is no attribution of violent action to Israel at all? Rather, “Palestinians must abandon violence.” It is only Palestinian acts of violence that stand as an obstacle to peace. Is this a more balanced perspective?
Obama calls for a new beginning. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, in his rendering, owes to an inability on the part of both sides to overcome “a painful history.” The history that Israel is called on to overcome, however, is continuous with its present, namely the “constant hostility and attacks” by Palestinians; it is only the latter, the Palestinians, who are trapped in a “self-defeating focus on the past.” Their grievances owe not to the continuous expropriation of their territory, the bulldozing of their homes and the destruction of their agricultural lands, the continuous military incursions into their cities and towns and the killings and incarcerations that accompany these. No, they just can’t get over their old resentments.
Some commentators argue that, given the strong pro-Israeli sentiment within American political culture, Obama has no choice but to cleave to such a pro-Israeli rhetoric. On that reasoning, neither did Bush have a choice. And there is very little in Obama’s words or actions to suggest that, beneath this rhetorical stance, some other view of the world is at play, that behind his public embrace of what in broad outlines is indistinguishable from the Bush administration’s position, lies a plan to promote real justice in Palestine. He does cite the Quran, speak of his Muslim ancestors, express his appreciation for the accomplishments of Islamic societies, including their history of tolerance as exemplified in al-Andaluz.
As I am writing from Spain, I cannot resist a few words on this last point. What are we to make of this oddest of historical blunders, in a speech that otherwise shows such careful and meticulous craftsmanship? Here are the two lines: “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition.” Muslim tolerance during the Inquisition?! Such a slip in an otherwise seamless speech begs interpretation. What displacement or condensation has occurred such that the celebrated convivencia of al-Andaluz is now made contemporaneous with the forced conversion, slaughter, and exile of Spain’s Muslim and Jewish populations under the Inquisitorial regime? Are we to find in this image a call to the inhabitants of Gaza, or to the villagers of Afghanistan and Pakistan, to practice their celebrated Muslim tolerance in the face of their own devastation by American and Israeli armies and weaponry?