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:
- Did he withdraw or move at all away from Thursday’s comments, especially those regarding Israeli acceptance of the 1967 borders?
- Was there a different tone to his remarks, possibly indicating a movement away from what has largely been perceived as a pro-Palestinian perspective?
- 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?
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.