By Saree Makdisi
“We support a set of universal rights,” declared US President Barack Obama in his long-awaited speech last week. “Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders — whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.”
He might as well have added, “but not, of course, if you live in Gaza or Qalqilya; Shatila or Burj el Barajneh; Jaffa or Nazareth or Jerusalem.”
Thursday’s speech was billed as Obama’s second major attempt to reach out to the people of the Arab world, following a talk he gave in Cairo shortly after coming into office. But he made it perfectly clear that official America remains absolutely blind and deaf to the energy currently sweeping through the Arab world, especially when it comes to the all-important question of Palestine.
Obama’s speech represented in many senses the culmination of the political schizophrenia that has characterized American foreign policy for decades. On the one hand, he reiterated the tired old claim that America is the beacon of universal rights. On the other hand, he made it clearer than ever that, even if the United States now begrudgingly admits that some Arab citizens ought to enjoy those rights, it adamantly refuses to countenance their extension to the Palestinian people.
Yet the fundamental rights for which the people of Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen have been struggling — and which the people of all other Arab countries aspire to as well, even if they don’t always dare to say so out loud — are the same rights for which the Palestinian people have been struggling for over six decades now. Just as the police forces or armies of Syria, Egypt, Yemen and so on have been repressing their people’s rights, the Israeli police, border guards, army and intelligence services have been repressing the rights of Palestinians. They do so by maintaining the occupation and colonization of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem; by protecting the apartheid regime within pre-1967 Israel that denies fundamental rights to Palestinian citizens of the state (beginning with refusing to acknowledge that they are in fact Palestinians, not just deracinated “Israeli Arabs” with no genuine national identity); and by continuing to use armed force to block the right of return of those Palestinians who were expelled from their homes over 60 years ago.
President Obama could have taken this opportunity to acknowledge the continuity linking seamlessly together the uprisings or intifadas taking place across the Arab world and the Palestinian struggle. Instead, he sought to separate them. It is remarkable that a speech supposedly directed at the Arab world should have such little interest in actually engaging a reality that is patently obvious to all Arabs.
But ultimately that does not matter. The point is that the Arab world is not what it was a year ago. The people of the region— including the Palestinians — have learned to believe in the possibility that, by sheer persistence, willpower and steadfastness (“somoud”), they can transform political realities that had once seemed stubbornly impervious to change. (Who, a year ago, would have imagined Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who seemed to have become a pharaoh of the modern age, thrown out of office in humiliation?) The calls for democracy and self-determination in the Arab world are not empty slogans tied to a fantasy version of America as the guarantor of freedom, but the products of extraordinary political sophistication at the popular level — and of an awareness that the Arab world is being transformed despite America, not because of it.
For Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, the real lesson of President Obama’s speech last Thursday, and, even more so, of the one that followed it at AIPAC, is that official America is not yet ready to take them seriously as agents and masters of their own destiny. The only conceivable Arab and Palestinian response is to stop taking official America so seriously in turn: to separate themselves from the official American narrative of a “peace process” (which has, in any case, proven its bankruptcy); to look to themselves to continue developing their own strategies for achieving their rights based on the nonviolent protests and symbolic actions that proved so successful in Egypt and Tunis and in countless other struggles for freedom in other times and places (the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement is an exemplary case); and to insist that there will be no peace without justice for all Palestinians — the ones under occupation, the ones enduring apartheid inside Israel, and the ones whose right of return to their homeland has been blocked for six decades.
Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA. He wrote, among other books, “Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation”. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.