Robert Fisk: So far, Obama’s missed the point on Gaza

Thursday, 22 January 2009

It would have helped if Obama had the courage to talk about what
everyone in the Middle East was talking about. No, it wasn’t the US
withdrawal from Iraq. They knew about that. They expected the
beginning of the end of Guantanamo and the probable appointment of
George Mitchell as a Middle East envoy was the least that was
expected. Of course, Obama did refer to “slaughtered innocents”, but
these were not quite the “slaughtered innocents” the Arabs had in

There was the phone call yesterday to Mahmoud Abbas. Maybe Obama
thinks he’s the leader of the Palestinians, but as every Arab knows,
except perhaps Mr Abbas, he is the leader of a ghost government, a
near-corpse only kept alive with the blood transfusion of
international support and the “full partnership” Obama has apparently
offered him, whatever “full” means. And it was no surprise to anyone
that Obama also made the obligatory call to the Israelis.

But for the people of the Middle East, the absence of the word “Gaza”
– indeed, the word “Israel” as well – was the dark shadow over Obama’s
inaugural address. Didn’t he care? Was he frightened? Did Obama’s
young speech-writer not realise that talking about black rights – why
a black man’s father might not have been served in a restaurant 60
years ago – would concentrate Arab minds on the fate of a people who
gained the vote only three years ago but were then punished because
they voted for the wrong people? It wasn’t a question of the elephant
in the china shop. It was the sheer amount of corpses heaped up on the
floor of the china shop.

Sure, it’s easy to be cynical. Arab rhetoric has something in common
with Obama’s clichés: “hard work and honesty, courage and fair play
… loyalty and patriotism”. But however much distance the new
President put between himself and the vicious regime he was replacing,
9/11 still hung like a cloud over New York. We had to remember “the
firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke”. Indeed,
for Arabs, the “our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of
violence and hatred” was pure Bush; the one reference to “terror”, the
old Bush and Israeli fear word, was a worrying sign that the new White
still hasn’t got the message. Hence we had Obama, apparently
talking about Islamist groups such as the Taliban who were
“slaughtering innocents” but who “cannot outlast us”. As for those in
the speech who are corrupt and who “silence dissent“, presumably
intended to be the Iranian government, most Arabs would associate this
habit with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (who also, of course,
received a phone call from Obama yesterday), King Abdullah of Saudi
and a host of other autocrats and head-choppers who are
supposed to be America’s friends in the Middle East.

Hanan Ashrawi got it right. The changes in the Middle East – justice
for the Palestinians, security for the Palestinians as well as for the
Israelis, an end to the illegal building of settlements for Jews and
Jews only on Arab land, an end to all violence, not just the Arab
variety – had to be “immediate” she said, at once. But if the gentle
George Mitchell’s appointment was meant to answer this demand, the
inaugural speech, a real “B-minus” in the Middle East, did not.

The friendly message to Muslims, “a new way forward, based on mutual
interest and mutual respect”, simply did not address the pictures of
the Gaza bloodbath at which the world has been staring in outrage.
Yes, the Arabs and many other Muslim nations, and, of course, most of
the world, can rejoice that the awful Bush has gone. So, too,
Guantanamo. But will Bush’s torturers and Rumsfeld’s torturers be
punished? Or quietly promoted to a job where they don’t have to use
water and cloths, and listen to men screaming?

Sure, give the man a chance. Maybe George Mitchell will talk to Hamas
– he’s just the man to try – but what will the old failures such as
Denis Ross have to say, and Rahm Emanuel and, indeed, Robert Gates and
Hillary Clinton? More a sermon than an Obama inaugural, even the
Palestinians in Damascus spotted the absence of those two words:
Palestine and Israel. So hot to touch they were, and on a freezing
Washington day, Obama wasn’t even wearing gloves.