Local activists judge good, bad in new approach to peace

Obama hit the right points when he called upon Arab leaders to work with democracy advocates, said Alan Dershowitz. Obama hit the right points when he called upon Arab leaders to work with democracy advocates, said Alan Dershowitz.
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / May 20, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

WASHINGTON — Was it a step in the right direction? Or a disappointing retreat? Did it herald a new White House approach to Middle East peace? Or was it just the same old talk?

Boston activists on the Middle East — known for passionate views that span the political spectrum — spent yesterday afternoon dissecting President Obama’s speech to see what it might mean for the prospects for peace as uprisings in the Arab world intensify the level of uncertainty there.

Alan M. Dershowitz, a law professor at Harvard and vigorous advocate for Israel, watched the speech with his wife in their Cambridge home. He gave it “a B-plus.’’

“It was better than I anticipated,’’ he said, adding that the president hit the right points when he called upon Arab leaders to work with democracy advocates, not attack and imprison them. But Dershowitz said that if the president intended to lay out his vision for peace, he should have told the Palestinians that they will not have the right to return to Israel if they create a Palestinian state.

“Everybody understands that,’’ Dershowitz said, “except apparently Barack Obama.’’

Janette Hillis-Jaffe, the New England political director for J Street, a Jewish group that lobbies for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, focused on a different aspect of the speech: the part where Obama stated that peace talks should start from the 1967 borders and that the Palestinians must agree to any deviations — the first time a US president has explicitly said so.

“This was a step in the right direction to really say boldly what needs to be said,’’ she said.

After years of stalled negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, J Street has been calling on Obama to outline a vision for peace that the parties can use to jump-start the talks, just as President Clinton did in 1993.

Hillis-Jaffe said Obama came closer to doing that yesterday by spelling out the concept of using the 1967 border as the basis for negotiations. Obama’s remarks differ significantly from the position of President George W. Bush, who said talks should start with the presumption that Israel will be allowed to keep large settlement blocs in the Palestinian West Bank.

Alex Safian, associate director of Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, said the speech was “verbiage without any substance’’ because Obama’s point-man on Middle East peace, former senator George Mitchell, resigned last week and his team is being disbanded. That, Safian said, is a setback for the president, who appointed Mitchell on his second day in office to show that achieving peace was a top priority.

Safian, whose organization was formed to monitor how Israel is portrayed in the US media, tuned into the speech on the large television set in the group’s Allston office. An authority on the details of what presidents have spoken to on Israel, he said Obama departed from past policy by spelling out publicly details that President Clinton would only have said in private. Such a pronouncement will encourage the Palestinians to make greater demands of Israel, he said.

Salma Abu Ayyash, a math teacher at Roxbury Community College and cofounder of the Boston Palestine Film Festival, was disappointed with the speech for a very different reason. Ayyash, who listened on her car radio, said Obama wasn’t bold enough in his support for Palestinians. She said that she was “thrilled’’ to hear Obama champion the rights of Arabs in Libya, Bahrain, and Egypt but that the United States is hypocritical when it comes to the Palestinians.

“Everybody needs to be treated with the same standards,’’ she said. “I am of Palestinian origin, though, and I feel that the US foreign policy has always come short when it comes to Palestine. . . . It has come to the point where it is becoming absurd.’’

Obama supports a demilitarized Palestinian state but yesterday criticized the Palestinian effort to get UN recognition for their state, calling it a “symbolic’’ move aimed at isolating Israel.

Diana Butto, a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team, called the speech a “missed opportunity.’’

“Obama had the ability to set out US values regarding the Arab world in a universal and consistent manner,’’ she wrote in an e-mail from the Palestinian city of Ramallah, in the West Bank, where she watched the speech at a cafe with friends. “He spoke of self-determination for the Arab world but neglected to understand that the most egregious violation of self-determination is Israel’s denial of freedom to Palestinians.’’

Farah Stockman can be reached at top stories on Twitter

    waiting for twitterWaiting for Twitter to feed in the latest...