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.”
The point, Israel’s Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon clarified, is that “no one in the security Cabinet believes it’s possible to reach a solution with Abbas.” If that is so, Obama’s declaration that negotiations must continue -- and still putting the onus on Israel for their failure -- is meaningless. Ya’alon explains as follows:
The president divided the process into two phases; the worst part is that, according to the order set by President Obama, we first have to give up all the territory and return to the 1967 lines. This is a new and precedent-setting statement. This order of affairs is first and foremost suited to the Palestinians' interests. That is why it is good that the prime minister made it clear that those borders are not defensible. In his speech, Obama in effect demanded of us to give up the territorial card without the substantive questions that are important to us -- such as recognition of the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people -- are solved.
As former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Dore Gold has noted:
Mr. Abbas's unilateral move at the U.N. represents a massive violation of a core commitment in the Oslo Agreements in which both Israelis and Palestinians undertook that "neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of Permanent Status negotiations." Palestinian spokesmen counter that Israeli settlements violated this clause. Yet former Prime Minister Rabin was very specific while negotiating Oslo in preserving the rights of Israeli citizens to build their homes in these disputed areas, by insisting that the settlements would be one of the subjects of final status negotiations between the parties.
Writing at Contentions, Jonathan S. Tobin, as usual, gets it just right:
What the world heard and what the world understood -- even if many Jewish Democrats prefer to remain in denial -- is that Obama believes Israel must be pressured hard if there is to be peace. His condescending manner at AIPAC made it clear that he considers Israel to be the primary obstacle to peace.
Pointing out that Israel has to date made many major concessions and hard choices, Tobin continued:
The Palestinians have compounded this refusal with an alliance between the moderates of Fatah and the terrorists of Hamas that even Obama understands eliminates them as a negotiating partner. And yet, he still insists that Israel must negotiate with them and make "hard choices," which will start with their acceptance of his demand that the 1967 lines be the starting point for negotiations. Obama says that this means that the border ought to be different from those lines; yet the Palestinians insist they cannot be. And they will use, as they already have, his endorsement of those lines to buttress the very UN campaign for independent statehood that Obama says he will oppose.
Finally, one must look at how the Palestinian Authority took Obama’s speech: did they see it as one friendly to Israel, as the president’s supporters claim? Look no further than the statement released by chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat: that they would not resume peace negotiations unless Israel accepts the ’67 border guidelines mentioned by the president. In other words, what might be determined in final status negotiations is now, according to Fatah, to be accepted first as a starting point before negotiations are to take place! What should be then negotiated? The status of Haifa, Tel Aviv, etc.? As Erekat says:
Once Netanyahu says that the negotiations will lead to a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, then everything will be set.
Of course, as Erekat knows, that means half of Jersualem, including the Western Wall, would again be closed to Israel. What happened to Obama’s 2008 promise in the speech he then gave to AIPAC, that under an Obama administration Jerusalem would never be divided and would be Israel’s capital?
So we now all wait for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC tonight, and his speech to Congress tomorrow. Will the PM make his own position clear, and challenge the president to put pressure not on our major ally in the region, but on the recalcitrant and intransigent Palestinian Authority, now ready for its formal alliance with Hamas? Or will he appear to try and make it seem that fences have been mended, and he fully believes that Barack Obama is truly Israel’s partner in the Middle East? We will know shortly.