President Obama's Speech to AIPAC: An Assessment

At this morning’s AIPAC plenary, President Barack Obama delivered the speech the nation and especially Israel advocates were waiting to hear, especially since his Thursday comments after meeting with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. I have posted the text here. The big questions to be asked about today’s comments are the following:

  1. Did he withdraw or move at all away from Thursday’s comments, especially those regarding Israeli acceptance of the 1967 borders?
  2. Was there a different tone to his remarks, possibly indicating a movement away from what has largely been perceived as a pro-Palestinian perspective?
  3. Is what President Obama said sufficient to satisfy the worries and objections to his Thursday remarks, and to his overall Israeli policy, from those who have been extremely critical of his foreign policy, especially in the Middle East?

First, it was apparent that having come to AIPAC, the Israeli lobby dreaded by the Walt-Mearsheimer “realists” and the leftist Nation magazine opponents of Israel, the president would obviously be doing whatever he had to gain the renewed support of American Jews and those in the country at large who continually tell posters they support Israel. As for the American Jewish community, he may not need their votes anymore as a bloc -- although he probably does to gain Florida in 2012 -- but he needs the large sums of money that donors have recently indicated they have some second thoughts about giving him this campaign.

The president did not  disappoint. The speech, as you can read for yourself, was full of obligatory promises of how the United States stands by Israel, and how his administration has done whatever it had to in order to guarantee Israel’s military requirements and security. As usual, the president cited the Iron Dome anti-missile system as a key example.

He also cited examples like the U.S. opposition to Durban III, which, as many will recall, was actually touch-and-go until the president decided against U.S. attendance and support. This time, unlike Thursday, the president was adamant that no nation had to negotiate with a terrorist group or regime pledged to its destruction, a clear message that Israel was within its rights to refuse to honor the legitimacy of Hamas or to deal with it. Yet, having said that, he immediately backpedaled and said that failure was not an option, and one had to move towards negotiations.

Turning to the issue of the 1967 borders, the president said two different things. One, he argued that all administrations have for years known that these borders had to be a starting point of negotiations. The growth of the Palestinian population west of the Jordan border meant, he said, that demography showed that for the Jewish state to maintain its democratic and Jewish character, something had to give and an agreement be reached.

Yet, having raised the ’67 borders to AIPAC, a sensitive issue to most of its members, the president concretely did something he did not do on Thursday -- use the very language of the Bush administration agreement with Israel reached in 2004-2005. He proclaimed that when he raises the border issue,  he means that “the parties themselves -- Israelis and Palestinians -- will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. It is a well known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides. The ultimate goal is two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine.”  To great applause, he said that “Israel’s legitimacy is not subject to debate.”

He therefore implied that he does not favor forcing Israel to accept these boundaries -- only that they themselves must negotiate a border that in effect will be different, and will take into account the situation on the ground. That means, as most people understood the president, that he did not insist that Israel accept the contested ’67 borders, which the PA desires them to do and which would abandon east Jerusalem to the Palestinians.  It also means that the large settlements would, as most people know, not be disbanded and would be incorporated into Israel proper. As he put it: “It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.”

So what are we to make of all this?