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On Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly


Empty Promises: Obama Takes His Middle East Peace Plan to the UN

Phyllis Bennis, 23 September 2010

“International law is not an empty promise” – except for Palestinians

President Obama’s General Assembly speech called on the international community to mobilize behind the U.S.-led “peace process.”  He called on the Palestinians to “reconcile with a secure Israel” and waxed eloquent on the illegality of killing Israeli civilians.  He called on the Palestinians’ friends to implement the Arab Peace Plan’s proposed normalization with Israel without ever mentioning the plan’s clear understanding that ending Israel’s 1967 occupation must come first. And he called on Israel to – talk nicely.

Obama did say that Israel’s partial settlement moratorium “should” be extended, but carefully went on to urge that the talks “press on until completed” with no linkage between the two goals.  Not to mention that what he calls a “moratorium” has consistently allowed continued building throughout Arab East Jerusalem, continued construction on homes already approved or begun, and work on huge infrastructure projects throughout the settlements.

Obama pretty much ignored any substantive role for the United Nations in the “peace process,” but he lectured the General Assembly, noting that “many in this hall count themselves as friends of the Palestinians.”  (He didn’t, apparently, include himself in that category.)  From those friends, he demanded “tangible steps towards normalization” with Israel, ignoring the fundamental basis of the Arab Peace Initiative that makes clear normalization comes after, not before, an end to Israel’s occupation.

And he condemned the “slaughter of innocent Israelis,” but said not one word about Israel’s 2008-09 assault, which used U.S. arms to kill 1,400 Gazans—more than 900 of them civilians and more than 300 of them children. Let alone any mention of the nine killed (including a U.S. citizen) and 50+ injured in the Israeli assault on the Turkish ship in the international humanitarian flotilla a few months ago.
The speech made clear that support for the moment, the endless “peace process” is, for Washington, a perfectly appropriate alternative to holding Israel accountable for any violations of human rights or international law. The Goldstone Report, UN and other efforts to hold Israel accountable for the illegalities inherent in its occupation and apartheid policies, or even the extreme violations like the Gaza war or the flotilla assault, must be sidelined or squashed entirely – because they could undermine the peace talks, whether or not those peace talks have any hope of succeeding.  It is the exact opposite position as that taken by Obama’s UN Ambassador Susan Rice regarding Darfur. Rice was one of the strongest voices insisting on full implementation of the International Criminal Court indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir regardless of the dangers it posed to the fragile Sudanese ceasefire because accountability must come first, insisting that justice comes before peace.

But not, apparently, when it comes to Israel-Palestine.

Obama made a vitally important point when he said that “international law is not an empty promise.”  Unfortunately he said that only in regard to imposing sanctions on Iran.  After that, when he began to speak of Palestine and Israel, the phrase “international law” was never seen again.

In all his discussions of the peace talks and their importance, and even in his description of the arguments of “the cynics,” Obama never acknowledged the most important reason why this round of talks will almost certainly fail to bring about a just, comprehensive and lasting peace: because they are not based on international law and the UN Charter and resolutions.  The president said that the cynics’ view is that Israelis and Palestinians don’t trust each other, that both parties are divided internally, that “the gaps between the parties are too great.”  But he never acknowledged that “the parties” do not come to the table as equals, that this is not a border dispute between Peru and Ecuador. These are talks between an Occupying Power, which happens to be the 23rd wealthiest country in the world and by far the strongest military and nuclear weapons power in the region, backed by the strongest and most powerful country on the globe, facing an impoverished and dispossessed occupied population.  When talks are based on accepting that inequality as a given, when the arbiter of the talks is the main backer of the stronger party, and when international law is ignored, the talks cannot succeed.

So far, the Obama administration seems to be saying that “no change” is the only change we can believe in when it comes to U.S. policy on Israel-Palestine.


Phyllis Bennis is the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington DC

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