President Obama speaks out in Cairo

In perhaps the most anticipated speech since xx (what was a previous anticipated speech??) President Obama showed great oratorial skills in his wide-ranging 45 minutes at the Cairo University podium.

While he was clearly reaching out positively to the Muslim world, he didn’t flinch from pointed messages – the trauma of 9/11for the US and the urgent need to stop extremists, the importance of Arab countries not wasting oil resources, the need to focus on education for all and to allow women equal opportunities including choosing their dress. He also emphasised the value of democracy, pointing out that it is is not the same as winning an election and then shutting down the opposition.

Obama also distinguished between an Iran pursuing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes from the danger of allowing nuclear weapons. He also acknowledged the US role in helping engineer the 1953 Iranian coup d’état of the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq from power. According to an Iranian friend of mine, that coup has been a long running sore that Iranians nurse against the US and UK.

Israeli anxiety was at such a level prior to the speech that the words when they came of “stop settlements” as part of road map agreements were comparatively not dramatic – especially in the context of the upfront emphasis on the unshakeable bonds between the US and Israel, the concurrent need for the Palestinians and Arab world to accept Israel’s existence and stop violence, for the Palestinians to build up their institutions to make them fit for governing, and for Hamas to accept its obligations if they want to be a participant. Also, it helped to realise that the Israel-Palestinian-Arab country dispute was just one in a list of Obama issues. The goal of people working together – reinforced by Muslim, Jewish and Christian quotes – also had a good resonance.

At one stage, Obama mentioned how important it was for the US people of feeling secure. Surely that sentiment of needing security can be extended to Israel! And that security is based not on jet fighters but on an acceptance of Israel as a Jewish country in the region.

It is unfortunate that Obama missed the opportunity to remind his audience that there is only one Jewish country whereas there are dozens of Muslim countries (including the Islamic republic of Iran as he stated), and that the Jewish link to Israel has been continuous with the formation of Israel conceived and worked towards long before the Holocaust. The unbroken association of the Jewish people with Israel needs to be accepted by the Arab and Muslim world. In subsequent speeches, Obama has to make this clear just as he has to emphasise the wonderfully positive contributions Israel can make in the area and globally. Whenever someone says they are going “to speak the truth”, it’s important to see what is included and what is excluded. Commentary is included here, here and here and elsewhere with the media links on the right.

Whatever doubts one has about President Obama’s motivations, his speaking talents are undeniable, and as an African-American President with part Muslim background, he certainly is in a unique position to bring people together. One can only hope good will come of it – for Israel and the rest of the troubled world.

The full transcript is on the White House website here but the impact is markedly greater with the video. Here is the first minutes of the speech – the rest will be available soon on the White House website.

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