Analysing Obama’s two recent speeches on US policy in Middle East, Joseph Daher unpicks their content to reveal messages of ongoing Imperial interests and unbending support for Israel.
Obama’s last two speeches have symbolised the reaction of imperialist powers against Arab revolutions which are challenging their political and economic interests and, above all, their close ally Israel. It is not a surprise, therefore, to have seen Egypt and Tunisia invited to the G8 to discuss events in the Middle East and North Africa, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) have been increasingly active towards both countries in suggesting new loans and “financial assistance” to help them with their social and economic crises.
On Thursday 19th May, Barack Obama delivered a key speech on US policy towards the Middle East. The main message was that the United States and the West will pour billions of dollars into the region in support of Egypt, Tunisia and other countries “embracing democracy”. This financial assistance, compared to the Marshall Plan, should not be understood as a way to promote democracy, but quite the opposite - as a way to co-opt Arab revolutions and protect USA interests in the region.
It is a way to guarantee that, instead of financing social projects, these countries will still be able to pay their debts to international financial institutions, such as the WB and the IMF, and so stay under the control of neo-liberal structures. With the assistance of the West, these institutions will continue to be able to control the socio-economic policies of these countries and to pursue their policies that impoverish society and the people as whole.
Egypt has a debt of $30 billion, while the Mubarak family has a fortune some have estimated at $70 billion, while Tunisia’s debt is $5 billions and Ben Ali’s fortune has been estimated at between $5 to $8 billion.
The debts incurred by the regime of Ben Ali and Mubarak could be classified as “odious debt”, a legal concept within international law which has important consequences.
It was jurist Alexander Sack, writing in the 1920s, who first defined this principle: "If a despotic power incurs a debt not for the needs and or in the interests of the State, but to strengthen its despotic regime, to repress the population that fights against it, etc., this debt is odious for the population of the State (...).This debt is therefore not mandatory for the nation's debt plan, it’s a personal debt power that has incurred it, consequently it falls with the fall of this power.”
Both countries therefore have the right to refuse to repay these debts.
Nonetheless, the current regimes in Egypt and Tunisia have asked for new loans, despite growing criticisms from popular organizations and the Left in each country.
The US has announced debt relief of as much as $1 billion, along with a new $1 billion credit, for Egypt, while the military council that is currently ruling the country is accused of torturing and arresting opponents. In March, it brought in a law banning strikes and demonstrations that impede the work of public institutions - this decision violates international law protections for free assembly.
Furthermore, two days before his 19th May speech, Obama pledged several hundred million dollars in aid to King Abdullah of Jordan, despite repression of popular demonstrations calling for reform over the past few months. And not a single line of Obama’s speech addressed Saudi Arabia, a violent and retrograde dictatorship that has made no significant attempt at reform but which is one of America's main oil suppliers and a key political ally in the region.
These examples illustrate the hypocrisy that runs through US policy in the Middle East, and that can be found in the 19th May speech.
Obama quite rightly condemned the repression of the Syrian and Libyan regimes against their own peoples, but his rhetoric on this issue is hypocritical on many levels. Why speak of peaceful demonstrations being suppressed in Syria and Libya, but not about the constant repression of demonstrators by the Israeli apartheid regime? Why call for a dialogue in the case of Bahrain, despite harsh repression of peaceful protesters there? And on the same day as Obama’s speech, Israel announced the construction of new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, yet there was not a single mention of it by the US president.
Obama’s second speech was on Sunday 22nd of May to pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. It confirmed an unbreakable imperialist relationship with Israel, as a strategic ally in the region that the US needs to secure their interests and to implement imperialist policies.
President Obama, who won repeated rounds of applause and a standing ovation, reminded the public that US financial support for the defense of Israel under his administration had reached record levels. He declared his will to maintain the superiority of the Israeli military over its potential adversaries in the region.
Thus, Obama has confirmed the continuation of former president Bush’s policy of total support for Israel. Obama’s commitment to a settlement based on 1967 border lines “with mutual agreed land swaps” assures Israel of US support for the annexation of its West Bank settlements, built in violation of international law. Bush had outlined his support for this idea in his famous April 2004 letter to then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, where he affirmed the malleability of 1967 Green line to suit Israel - in order for it to carry out massive annexations of land to keep most of its illegal settlements.
Comments in the speech about guaranteeing Israel as a Jewish State for the Jewish people against a growing Palestinian demographic “threat” show a racist element to Obama’s position. He explained how the US and Israel must confront a growing number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River that are fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian territories. This legitimises Israeli discourse and practice which has developed all kinds of political and military strategies to deal with what Israel's President Shimon Peres calls a "demographic bomb", that he wants to defuse.
With these words, Obama has denied the right of return to Palestinian refugees, recognised by international law and UN resolution 192. The US president has therefore refused 7.1 million Palestinians (about 67% of the Palestinian population) the right to return their home in historic Palestine. He has also denied the right of Palestinian citizens of Israel to enjoy equal citizenship - by calling for the recognition of Israel as a Jewish State for the Jewish people they become second class citizens in their own land.
Obama’s failure to call on Israel to respect the full and equal rights of the 1.4 million Palestinian citizens of Israel legitimates Israel’s growing raft of racist legislation directed against the Palestinian indigenous community.
The US president further described the region as a "tough neighborhood" - a term borrowed from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who used it to refer to the Middle East over a decade ago - where Arabs are the violent and barbarian peoples of the Middle East and Israeli Jews are the peaceful and civilized one.
Obama has in many respects gone further than previous US presidents. He called on Palestinians and their supporters to stop “delegitimising” Israel and accept it as "a Jewish state" that is "for the Jewish people". The term “delegitimising” is the word Israel and its supporters have applied to the global Palestine solidarity movement that calls for equal rights, and in particular to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Obama also described the Arab Revolutions and the democratization of countries in the region as a threat to Israel’s peace with Egypt and Jordan. He therefore advised Israel to accelerate the creation of a bantustan pseudo Palestinian state, which will not appease masses of the region, otherwise its interests will be challenged and any peace with democratized Arab states will be nearly impossible to guarantee.
For decades the whole concept of the “peace process” was based on Israel signing treaties with unelected and pro-western Arab dictatorships, in spite of their publics’ deep opposition to agreements that did nothing to restore the rights of Palestinians and only freed Israel’s hands to attack and occupy more. The 1979 Israel-Egypt and 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaties are very good examples of this policy.
Furthermore, Obama opposed the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement, declaring it was an obstacle to peace. The US president called Hamas a terrorist organization, insisting it should recognise Israel’s right to exist, reject violence, and adhere to all existing agreements, in order to be accepted by the US and the international community. Obama not only violates the right of self determination of the Palestinians, once again, by denying them the right to conduct their national affairs, but also gave an excuse to Netanyahu to continue to avoid negotiations.
On the other side, the US has never called for the Israeli state to recognize fundamental Palestinian rights as a precondition for negotiations, nor has it tried to get Israel to adhere to international law. We should remember that Netanyahu's own political party, the Likud, opposes a Palestinian state, rejects international law and refuses to suspend illegal settlement building so that negotiations can resume. The Likud party platform clearly states: “The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.” The platform also denies other basic rights even to cities like Jerusalem and certainly does not even consider the need to allow refugees to return as per international law.
Obama and the US administration have started to organize an imperialist reaction against the Arab revolutions which are challenging their interests in the region and their close ally Israel. The United States’ weakening ability to maintain and/or impose obedient client dictators on Arab states makes Israel more than even of a close and important ally. The warm welcome of Netanyahu by members of the US Congress who applauded nearly every utterance of the Israeli prime minister, with around 30 standing ovations, show this. If other popular revolutions are successful in the region, the US knows they will face more opposition by populations opposed to its imperialist policies. The US therefore needs a powerful Israel to secure its political and economic interests in the region.
This is why we need to support revolutions and permanent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa to free the region and the people from Israeli and US imperialist policies.