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Obama at the UN: What a difference one year makes

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Obama at the UNBy Gregg Carlstrom

The reaction in the West Bank to US President Barack Obama's speech at the United Nations has been, as you might expect, frustrated. Frustrated - but not surprised.

The frustration was mostly with the tone of the speech, rather than its substance. The most offensive line to many, at least in interviews this morning, was Obama's declaration that "there are no shortcuts"; as several Ramallah residents reminded me, the Palestinian people have been dispossessed for 63 years already.

But the speech did not surprise anyone; it has been clear for months, after all, that Obama planned to veto the Palestine Liberation Organisation's bid for full membership at the UN. Mustafa Barghouti, the Palestinian politician and activist, called Obama's position "disappointing" in an interview before the president's speech.

I think it is very strange that Obama will veto a bid for Palestinian statehood, when a year ago at the UN General Assembly he supported the idea," Barghouti said. "The US talks about freedom and democracy, but Palestine is excluded."

Interestingly, many people I've spoken with in Ramallah believe Obama wants to support Palestinian membership at the UN, and that his promise to veto the bid is simply election-year politics.

Obama wants the Jewish vote, because he is going to elections," said Jamal Mansour, an employee at the ministry of youth and sports. "If it was at another time, we would get more, but right now, the Israelis will press Obama.

"He's not doing what he promised, because he has the Israeli lobby in the United States, and because an election is coming up," said Jacob Awad, a student holding a sign with a rather coarse message for the American president.

I can't guess at Obama's core convictions, of course. Many US commentators have argued that Obama needs to veto the bid to help his electoral odds. Then again, if Obama did support the PLO's bid, would he lose the Jewish vote to, say, Rick Perry?

t's worth noting that George W Bush, a vocally "pro-Israel" president, never won more than 24 per cent of the Jewish vote; American Jews are not the one-issue voters they're often made out to be. (Obama continues to poll better among Jewish voters than any other group.)

In any event, the reaction from Israel - or the Israeli press, at least - has been mostly enthusiastic. Ma'ariv described it as an "American embrace". Eitan Haber, a columnist for the popular daily Yediot Aharonot, quipped that the only thing missing from Obama's speech was "a nice photograph of Theodor Herzl", the father of modern-day Zionism.

It was as if he lifted words and entire sections out of [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu's planned address," Haber wrote.

There were a few dissenting views, the most pointed from Ha'aretz's Akiva Eldar, who criticised Obama for his "graceless courting of the Israeli government".

We'll see if Haber's assessment was true on Friday, when Netanyahu is scheduled to address the General Assembly. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas will also speak, and then submit the PLO's formal request for full membership.


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