The Middle East Channel

Obama visits holy sites in Israel ahead of trip to Jordan

On his final day in Israel, U.S. President Barack Obama visited holy sites and urged action against racism and anti-Semitism. In his only public remarks on Friday, Obama said we have a collective "obligation not just to bear witness but to act" against racism "and especially anti-Semitism." He visited three of the country's most powerful national sites including the Holocaust memorial as well as the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. On Thursday, Obama addressed Israeli students in a speech in Jerusalem appealing for a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He said "the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine." However, Palestinians were largely disappointed with his short visit to the West Bank. Some were put off by Obama's frequent use of Hebrew and stressing the "eternal friendship" between the United States and Israel. Additionally, some Palestinians were troubled by Obama's suggestion that a freeze on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank need not be a prerequisite for peace talks. Obama is traveling to Jordan on Friday, where he is likely to focus discussions with King Abdullah II on the Syrian conflict, and the impact on Jordan. About 436,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan since the beginning of the conflict two years ago.

Syria

A suicide bombing at the central Damascus Iman mosque killed a top pro-Assad cleric and at least 41 other people on Thursday during evening prayers. The death of Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramada al-Bouti is a major blow to the regime -- he was a prominent Sunni supporter of the government. In Bouti's weekly sermons, he frequently called on Syrians to join the fight against the uprising. President Bashar al-Assad issued a statement of condolences to the country promising to destroy "extremism" and cleanse the country. The main opposition armed group, the Free Syrian Army, denied responsibility for the attack, stressing its forces would never have targeted a mosque. Moaz al-Khatib, the head of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, condemned the assassination. Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon authorized an investigation on Thursday into an alleged chemical weapons attack in Aleppo province. The government and opposition forces have traded blame over a missile attack in Khan al-Assal, which they say contained chemical weapons. 

Headlines  

  • Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said has pardoned all dissidents who have been imprisoned for defaming him or participating in protests. However, Oman's state news agency did not say how many people would be released.
  • Family members of former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi who had sought refugee in Algeria in 2011 left the country "a long time ago" according to Algeria's envoy to Libya.
  • Shiite community leaders in Saudi Arabia have condemned the arrests of 16 Shiite citizens accused of spying and have called for political reform. 

 

Arguments and Analysis

"The U.S. invasion of Iraq cost me my country and my family (Yasir Abbas, The Washington Post)

"When I was a high school sophomore, the United States invaded my country to depose Saddam Hussein. Ten years later, I have lost scores of family members and friends. I am viewed as a traitor by many of my compatriots, and I was forced to leave Iraq - probably for the rest of my life.

Soon after the invasion, Iraqis were forced to choose sides between the new, U.S.-backed government and the insurgency. Many decided to join the militias and insurgents or passively accepted their actions in return for the protection and security they offered. I chose a different path: siding with the people who had invaded my homeland.

My decision to work with the U.S. military as an interpreter was not easy, but for me it was the only choice. When I saw the sectarian violence that rapidly filled the void left by Saddam Hussein's fall, I realized that the U.S. military was the only actor with sufficient resources to resolve the intensifying conflict. Siding with the Americans also spared me from societal pressure to join a militia and take part in the violence.

... Was it worth it to me? I can't deny that my wife and child are healthy or that there is limitless opportunity for me in the United States. But is that worth losing my friends, family and country? Never."

"Nice Speech, Mr. President (Daniel Levy, Foreign Policy)

"Something odd happened during Wednesday's press conference between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. When asked to address the Palestinian issue, the U.S. president on three occasions said that he would have more to say when he spoke directly to the Israeli people. The apparent takeaway is that for Obama, spending (wasting?) too much time trying to make progress with the Israeli prime minister on the Palestinian question is an exercise in futility -- a recognition that the politics would have to change first and that the Israeli public would be key to any political shift.

When Obama finally did get around to addressing that Israeli public in Thursday's speech in Jerusalem, the president made the point unequivocally: "Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see." Some might say Obama was following his own domestic playbook, as he has on issues from taxes to budget cuts to gun control. It's as if he sees Bibi as an obstacle to change on par with the House Republicans or the Tea Party.

Obama made his appeal to the Israeli public in an interesting way. He hit all the buttons in endorsing Israel's own narrative -- as one would expect from a visit that has resembled a schmooze-a-thon -- but he added a surprising twist. Obama essentially offered Israelis a blank check while attaching a health warning: "Use with Caution.""

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/Uriel Sinai

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