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Israeli Media Reads the Fine Print

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In the 48 hours since President Obama's speech in Cairo, Israeli journalists and pundits have had a lot to say. Their comments offer insights into U.S. foreign policy that many American observers might not get at home.

Some were particularly struck by Obama's implicit linkage of Palestinian aspirations and other global struggles for freedom. In the liberal newspaper Ha'aretz, journalist Akiva Eldar wrote:

Obama placed violence against Israel on a par with the settlements and the humiliation of Palestinians in the territories. He spoke in the same breath about the struggle of Palestinians who lost their homes more than 60 years ago and the struggle of African slaves in the U.S. The Israelis could see themselves in the sentence that mentioned the apartheid state of South Africa.

As is a frequent occurrence in U.S. discourse, Obama's words were built around criticism of Palestinian violence. Israeli commentators, however, paid closer attention to what he said than many American pundits did. In Obama's original words:

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia.

This tidy framing by Obama skillfully dodged the role of America's bloody Civil War in ending slavery. But setting that aside, the implied link between Palestinians and historically oppressed populations drew a fair amount of official reaction from Israeli media.

The somewhat conservative Jerusalem Post editorialized against Obama's comments:

...we cringed when he associated the Palestinian struggle with the US civil rights movement and with the campaign for majority rule in South Africa -- even if the punch-line of this false analogy was: Terrorism is always unjustifiable.

The full editorial board of Ha'aretz also weighed in, though from a very different perspective:

As such, Obama does not consider some more equal than others. The right of Israel to exist as an independent and sovereign state does not supersede that of the Palestinians. The suffering and humiliation of the Palestinians under occupation are unacceptable, and therefore they must be granted human and political rights; no less unacceptable is the condition of Israeli citizens who live under the threat of rockets.

While much of Israel's media commentary is conducted in Hebrew, key outlets like those above offer English editions that give insight into the thoughts of the Jewish majority. Another such source is Ynetnews, an online English-language news site owned by Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest newspaper. Ynetnews reporter Attila Somfalvi analyzed the domestic political implications of Obama's continued call for a two-state solution and an end to settlements:

For Netanyahu, this is a major junction that offers only two directions: A collision course with the world's greatest power, which will lead to Israel's isolation and ostracism in the international arena - or a dramatic policy shift that will exact difficult political prices. In other words: The prime minister must decide whether he's going with Likud's more rightist members, or with Obama.

One of the most interesting reactions focused on a single sentence in Obama's speech. It wasn't the comment itself that was so thought-provoking, but the broader issue it hinted at. Professor Gerald M. Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University responded harshly in the Jerusalem Post Online to Obama's comments regarding Hamas:

The call for Hamas - the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood - to act responsibly to "put an end to violence" and "recognize Israel's right to exist" is extremely far fetched, even for Obama. Hamas belongs in the first part of the speech, which focused on confronting "violent extremism in all of its forms," including al-Qaida and the Taliban.

What Steinberg was referring to was a single carefully-crafted sentence in Obama's speech. Though the words were again structured as a criticism of violence, they contained something even more interesting. Tucked between the commas was a recognition that Hamas must be a part of any successful peace process:

[Emphasis added] To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist.

Steinberg's comments reflect a fear of this necessary reality -- that Hamas must be included in any successful agreement. In the days ahead, more fears are likely to be expressed. But for Israel and a viable Palestinian state to coexist, Hamas has to be part of the solution.