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The Strange and Contradictory Perceptions of the Obama Speech on Israel: What did the President Really Say?

The different responses to President Barack Obama’s speech from the mainstream media show something very revealing: everyone still projects their own assumptions about what Obama means and believes onto the president. Even when all sides quoted his own words in the speech he gave to AIPAC, they still put forth their own beliefs and projected them onto Obama.

Let us look at the report by Helene Cooper that appears in the New York Times. Her article -- really an editorial -- presents the case that Barack Obama, contrary to the assertions of other observers, did not move one iota from the position he took when he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few days earlier at the White House. Take the following two paragraphs:

In his speech, Mr. Obama did not directly confront Mr. Netanyahu, who, while seated next to him at the White House last Friday, rejected the proposal Mr. Obama made a day earlier that negotiations use Israel’s 1967 borders as a starting point.

Mr. Obama’s decision to stick to his position, albeit with strong reassurances about America’s lasting bond with Israel, is a risky one politically. Mr. Obama is just starting a re-election campaign, and Republicans are doing what they can to present themselves to Jewish voters as more reliable protectors of Israel than the Democrats.

The key words are that she says Obama decided “to stick to his position,” which means that contrary to what Progressive Policy Institute Senior Fellow Josh Block said -- which I quoted in my own blog and which today’s Washington Post also cites. Block said:

"[The Obama speech was a] strong reaffirmation of the U.S.-Israel relationship and represented an important and positive change” from his remarks Thursday. "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," Block said. ‘This is an important and crucial change from what he said last week.”

What is important is that, according to the Post report by Joby Warrick:

While the president’s core message differed little, Obama appeared to have succeeded in easing the concerns of some Israelis who had sharply criticized his speech Thursday.

So, either the president did or did not change his core message. But in any case, the purpose of the speech was to make it appear that by mouthing pro-Israeli platitudes he would give the appearance of having changed his position, so that some Israelis -- and more importantly, American supporters of Israel -- would now think he is on their side!

That is why the kind of dissection of his speech presented today by Barry Rubin at PJM is so important. Even Netanyahu, according to the Warrick article, said “he is reassured about Obama’s intentions after their talks Friday.” Of course, that could be simply the strategy AIPAC has taken: to push forward for a pro-Israel policy by putting the best face possible on the speech, and then trying to force Obama into implementing what they argue his position was.

It is to Israel’s benefit of course, as another Post article explains, that Netanyahu aides “play down their differences with Obama.” By portraying Obama’s speech as “reassuring,” they can get some wiggle room with which to pressure the president to stand by a policy that will be to Israel’s benefit, and that will box Obama into standing by Israel rather than with Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. That does not mean, however, that the rest of us have to give up our own critical faculties. Thus, as Joel Greenberg writes in this article:

[Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor] said that Israeli officials were pleased that Obama had rejected Palestinian attempts to secure recognition of statehood at the United Nations, that he backed Israel’s refusal to negotiate with a Palestinian leadership that includes the militant group Hamas, and that he asserted that a two-state peace deal must affirm that Israel is the Jewish state.

Others have pointed out, however, that if read carefully the Obama speech in fact did not say that Israel was right to refuse to negotiate with a Palestinian state that has signed an agreement with Hamas. That in fact, he went on in his speech to argue that despite this reality, they must do so because peace is a necessity that cannot be put on the backburner because of the new alliance. That is, indeed, the essence of Obama’s approach -- to take back what he just said one sentence after he said it, so that both sides will find the kind of reassurance that they seek.

Of course, the Obama administration wanted it known that, as one advisor told Cooper, Netanyahu’s objections showed “Bibi over the top.” And other newspapers took the position that in fact Obama had changed his position from the WH meeting with Netanyahu. Jay Solomon and Laura Meckler, writing in The Wall Street Journal, took the position that Obama only tried to “soften the impact” of his original statement:

[Obama made] strong assertions that his administration recognized that Israel won't give up all the lands it gained during the 1967 conflict as part of a final agreement -- a point Mr. Netanyahu stressed when meeting the American leader Friday. ... [It was] an attempt to restate his views in a package more acceptable to Israel and its supporters.

If so, the new package was for many AIPAC attendees no better than the old one. Their article ended with the following observation from one shrewd delegate:

Still, unease remained among some delegates. “He wanted to demonstrate his support of Israel, but it was not concrete enough to be someone you can absolutely trust. He's a politician," said Arthur Finkle, a committee delegate and chemical sales representative from Fairfield, Conn. He said Mr. Obama appeared to be reversing his Thursday view on the 1967 borders, even though the president said he was simply clarifying. "He might be trying to reshape it for this audience.”

You think?