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The United Nations General Assembly session kicked off today with a speech by President Barack Obama. His central theme was “peace is hard but we know it is possible.”
Before getting to the looming issue of a Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations, Obama lauded the Arab Spring. Pointing to Egypt in particular, he said:
One year ago, Egypt had known one President for nearly 30 years. But for 18 days, the eyes of the world were glued to Tahrir Square, where Egyptians from all walks of life — men and women, young and old, Muslim and Christian — demanded their universal rights. We saw in those protesters the moral force of non-violence that has lit the world from Delhi to Warsaw, from Selma to South Africa — and we knew that change had come to Egypt and to the Arab world.
Tell that to CBS correspondent Lara Logan, who was brutally beaten and sexually assaulted by an Egyptian mob during the celebrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square following the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. The “President for nearly 30 years,” whom Obama kicked under the bus, had maintained a peace treaty with Israel that is now in serious jeopardy, as mobs of Egyptians have attacked the Israeli embassy, and the ascendant Muslim Brotherhood has told the Egyptian people to prepare for war with Israel.
President Obama had harsh words for Syrian President Assad. “As we meet here today, men and women and children are being tortured, detained and murdered by the Syrian regime,” Obama said. He called upon the UN Security Council to “sanction the Syrian regime, and to stand with the Syrian people.” Then again, the president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and UN Ambassador Susan Rice have been urging tough UN action against the man they once referred to as a “reformer” for weeks with no success.
At the same time, Obama skirted around the tricky issue of the crackdown on dissidents in Bahrain, where the U.S. maintains its 5th fleet and has other strategic interests, including not offending the Bahraini regime’s friends in Saudi Arabia.
And in one of the most bizarre passages in his speech, President Obama held up developments in Sudan as a positive example for reaching a peaceful resolution to aspirations for self-determination. While it is true that after years of civil war, South Sudan became an independent state, the killing goes on around its borders and in nearby areas that remain under the control of the indicted international war criminal, Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir. Civilians continue to be murdered in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile State, as well as in Darfur. Obama’s failure to mention this ongoing tragedy in his speech is inexcusable.
Obama also barely mentioned Iran in his General Assembly speech. Recall that he turned away from the cries of the many thousands of Iranian protesters who filled the streets in 2009 and were being beaten, tortured and thrown into prison. This time Obama weakly admonished the Iranian regime for refusing to recognize the rights of its own people. All he could say about the looming threat to regional and international peace and security posed by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear arms (ever close to being achieved) was that “the Iranian government cannot demonstrate that its program is peaceful” and that it “has not met its obligations.”
In addressing the Palestinian issue, President Obama reminded his audience that one year ago, he had stood at the very same General Assembly podium and called for an independent Palestine to join the UN as a member state a year later. That year is now up. And although he had couched the aspiration of Palestinian UN membership with the caveat that a genuine peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians needed to be reached first, the Palestinian leaders heard the promise and not the preconditions. They have cited Obama’s words as one of the justifications for approaching the UN now for full statehood recognition.
Obama used this year’s speech to remove the ambiguity he had created, compounded by the pressure he has exerted on Israel to freeze its settlements and make more unilateral land concessions to the Palestinians. He said that “there is no shortcut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades…Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations — if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”
Knowing that Jewish American voters would be listening, he referred to America’s “unshakable” commitment to Israel’s security and to its enduring friendship:
Let us be honest with ourselves: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, look out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and fresh memories of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they are. Those are facts. They cannot be denied. The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors.
These are comforting words, but President Obama would have done well to specifically condemn Hamas, which is dedicated to Israel’s destruction. He should have spoken directly to the Palestinian officials sitting in the General Assembly hall, telling them that they will only be ready for statehood when they assume the responsibility of firmly rejecting Hamas as a partner in a new Palestinian government as long as it persists on its violent path towards Israel. Instead of just referring back to his May 2011 proposal, which would have Israel revert to the pre-1967 lines with unspecified mutual land swaps, Obama should have used this occasion to tell the Palestinians once and for all that any such concessions from Israel are non-starters while the Palestinians persist with their bogus “right of return” claim, which would end up turning pre-1967 Israel into yet another Arab state. He also should have repeated the reference he made two years ago to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. His failure to do so in this speech was a bow to Palestinian President Abbas, who refuses to recognize Israel’s right to retain its Jewish character.
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