Obama’s Words No Longer Matter to Palestinians

Originally published on Tikkun Daily

On a frigid evening in February, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama stood before a gathering of the Wisconsin Democratic Party and gave what, at the time, was an iconic and momentous address.

Responding to Hillary Clinton’s critique that Obama’s candidacy was principally built upon pretty speeches that lacked substantive policy commitments, Obama offered this:

Don’t tell me words don’t matter. “I have a dream” — just words? “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — just words? “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” — just words? Just speeches?

It was an address in which Obama forcefully championed several policies that have since been abandoned or put on hold, an address in which he went on to say, “I know good intentions are not enough when not fortified with political will.” As a progressive Democrat, it is a speech I now find mildly difficult to watch.


President Obama delivers a speech at Cairo University on June 4, 2009. Photo from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

But my mild disappointment is nothing when one considers the speech that Palestinians would find difficult to watch, though few today would likely admit to having actually watched it, much less have been moved by it. I am referring to the moment when, in 2009, Obama symbolically stood before the Middle East in Cairo and said, regarding the Palestinians:

For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.


Three years later, it is the Obama administration which is now turning its back on the Palestinians, for as the Palestinian Authority prepares to approach the United Nations in September, hoping for recognition of an independent Palestinian state, it is the Obama administration which is pledging to stand in the Palestinians’ way. In order to legally attain an internationally-recognized status of statehood, the Palestinians must become a full U.N. member by going through the Security Council. The PA recently announced that it plans to do just that in September, and all indications are that the Obama administration will serve as obstructionists, promising to veto this effort, and thus any legal claim to statehood.

This move to the U.N., self-described as a last ditch effort by the Palestinians, is being pursued out of desperation, principally because they have not found in Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government a willing peace partner. They have not found an Israeli government willing to stop expanding its settlements, willing to stop expanding its territorial hold over the West Bank, willing to engage in serious, final-status talks.

And they have not found a U.S. government — the single international entity capable of significantly influencing Israeli policy — willing to compel Israel to cease settlement construction and return to the negotiating table.

All they have found is the clock ticking, interminably, with time running out on the prospects of a contiguous, self-determining Palestinian state as more and more of its land disappears.


A student watches Obama’s speech at Cairo University. Photo from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Consider, once again, Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, in which he said the following:

Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

Of course, the settlement expansion has not stopped during a time in which the Obama administration has failed to follow through on its rhetoric. Recently, Netanyahu’s government approved 900 units to be built in the settlement of Har Homa in East Jerusalem, a settlement the United States has long opposed. The Obama administration responded with a statement of condemnation, saying it was “deeply concerned.”

After what Netanyahu’s office described as a “friendly” conversation between Obama and Netanyahu, Haaretz reported that Israel authorized the building of an additional 1,600 apartments in East Jerusalem (with another 2,700 slated for approval) as well as 277 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.

Obama’s words, it appears, don’t matter. And this is something Palestinians have long been frustrated with: the divide between U.S. rhetoric and substantive actions. Yes, the PA has received important funding from Washington. However, with regard to policy, words have rarely matched deeds. The hoped-for shift to a more robust implementation by the White House of American policy vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — perpetually hamstrung by various lobbies, including AIPAC and the Christian right — never came.

The Obama administration claims that the U.N. is not the proper forum in which to establish a Palestinian state. But in the face of long-stalled peace negotiations and the shrinking of West Bank lands, is it not enough to consider that the U.N. is precisely the forum in which questions of statehood can and often should be resolved when no other options exist?

After all, this is the venue that was approached in 1947 when the General Assembly voted to recognize the establishment of Israel. The country’s Declaration of Independence says as much:

On the 29th November, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Israel; the General Assembly required the inhabitants of Eretz Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable.

These words matter. The U.N resolution, which symbolically granted Israel its international birth, matters. And this is precisely why the Palestinians are now attempting to go to the United Nations, where they will likely receive a nominal recognition of statehood though a General Assembly resolution after being denied in the Security Council — a denial that will come due to a U.S. veto.

In 2009, Obama laid the rhetorical groundwork for a shift — not a shift in U.S. policy, but in the implementation of long-articulated U.S. policy. His words, cynically absorbed by many in the Middle East at the time, were nevertheless welcomed by Arab states and Palestinian leaders.

That groundwork has since been buried. For as the administration engages in pro-forma condemnations of Israeli settlements, saying it’s “deeply concerned,” nobody is listening.

Why? They are just words.

Add your voice to Tikkun’s petition for the recognition of Palestine by the U.N.

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Follow me on Twitter @David_EHG


About David Harris-Gershon

David Harris-Gershon – a blogger for Tikkun magazine and a freelance writer on Israel, the Middle East and America’s role in the region – has recently published work in The Jerusalem Post, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, AlterNet, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Colorado Review and elsewhere. His memoir – What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? – is forthcoming from Oneworld Publications (2013). He received his MFA from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and has worked extensively as an educator, teaching creative writing and Israeli History / Jewish Studies in university and high school classrooms. Follow David on Twitter @David_EHG

Posted on August 17, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. David is right–the UN IS the forum to acknowlege Palestine statehood–just like Israel, years ago…The
    US shud get out of the way if it cannot support Palestine: There shud be no further ‘settlement’ construction, land-theft, and carving of ‘bypass’ roads strictly for the convenience of the ‘settlers’…If the
    US abstains, the other Security Council members shud as well…While this wud demonstrate their non-
    support of Palestine-recognition, it shud not prevent Palestine having a fair chance to receive support and assistance by the other 140+ nations, many of which experienced a similar ‘welcome’…Israel shud
    deal with its internal problems and leave Palestine alone…Aaron Allen…

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