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President Obama's Speech to AIPAC: An Assessment

On this issue, the critical response came during the panel that followed. The points in the president’s speech, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens said, “are not as innocent as he made them out to be.” To this, Stephens received a large ovation from the assembled delegates, more than Obama received for any points that he had made.

The fundamental issue, Stephens argued, is not where the border lines are drawn; the issue is the actual nature of Palestinian society. While Obama was critical of the Arab rulers who have been recently taken down by their people, Stephens noted that the Palestinian Authority is as corrupt and compromised as the others, and that the president never commented on their culture and political structure. Stephens also argued that as the president laid things out, he still favored an Israeli withdrawal and concessions of some sort, before the issue of refugees -- the so-called “right of return” -- and the nature of Jerusalem were settled. From Israel’s standpoint, he argued, why should they move in any such way unless they were guaranteed a final end to the conflict if they did so? As he said, “Democracy bringing a Hamas to power in the West Bank is simply not an option nor should it be to the United States.”

Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, argued that today the president had in fact affirmed the Bush administration agreement that he previously ignored, and had even used the precise language in that agreement with Israel as his own. Like Stephens, he said the president acknowledged for the first time that the major settlement blocs would have to be incorporated as part of Israel. Indyk also thought that by saying the Palestinians would have to accept a Jewish state before negotiations took place, he was implicitly saying there could be no right of return.  Finally, as the session came to a close, Indyk predicted that Obama would bomb the Iranian nuclear installations in a pre-emptive attack.

While few present seemed to agree with Indyk’s optimism, judging from the amount of applause he got compared to Stephens, others too were optimistic. Josh Block, formerly AIPAC communications director and now a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, released a statement saying: “By adding a whole section to the speech that was missing on Thursday, President Obama put himself in line with presidents since Lyndon Johnson, who have said again and again, Israel cannot go back to the 1949/1967 lines. This is an important and crucial change from what he said last week.” Block added that he thought “President Obama's speech to AIPAC today was a strong reaffirmation of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and represented an important and positive change from his remarks on Thursday. It reflected an important continuity of U.S. policy going back to President Johnson.”

A few minutes ago, AIPAC released the following statement about the President’s speech:

AIPAC appreciates President Obama’s speech today at our annual policy conference in which he reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and the shared values that define both nations. In particular, we appreciate his statement that the U.S. does not expect Israel to withdraw to the boundaries that existed between Israel and Jordan in 1967 before the Six Day War. We also commend President Obama for his explicit condemnation of Hamas as a terrorist organization and his recognition that Israel cannot be expected negotiate with a group that denies its fundamental right to exist. We also welcome the president’s reaffirmation of his longstanding commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

What AIPAC has done, of course, is accentuate the positive and ignore the negative, that which the President chose not to address. It is a statement meant to pressure him to live up to what he seemed to say he now believed.

So the question is, as I conclude, whether or not the president means it, whether or not he will backpedal in the other direction, and whether he will seek to mend matters with Prime Minister Netanyahu, rather than push him in directions Israel does not want to go. We now have evidence that in a few short days, the pressure moved the president away from the contentious trap he set before meeting PM Netanyahu. Will he now change again facing pressure from the “realists,” the anti-Israel left wing, and the Arab nations — including those of the Arab Spring that are turning out to be vigorous enemies of Israel? Time, as usual, will tell.