This morning, President Obama told the assembled delegation of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that he is sticking to his vision for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, even at the risk of taking an electoral hit with American Jews. “I know very well that the easy thing to do, particularly for a president preparing for re-election, is to avoid any controversy,” he said, about halfway into his address to the group. “I don’t need Rahm to tell me that, I don’t need Axelrod to tell me that.”
In other words, anyone who thought the hue and cry from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the energetic conservative wing of the pro-Israel community over the past three days would cow Obama into backing off the framework he outlined in his big Middle East policy speech last Thursday—chiefly, using 1967 lines as a basis for negotiated land swaps—had another think coming. Indeed, the president went off-script to call out the solitary bellowing boo-er in the 10,000-strong convention-hall crowd in Washington, D.C.: “It was my reference to the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps that received the lion’s share of the attention, including just now.”
He went on sternly: “Since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what ‘1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps’ means.” Namely: Israel as a secure Jewish homeland; Palestine as a sovereign, self-governing, non-militarized Palestinian homeland next door in what are now the occupied territories. Careful listeners will have noted that he mentioned that the Palestinian state must be contiguous—a virtual impossibility if Gaza is to be included (although in his Thursday speech he also mentioned that the future Palestinian state would border Egypt). And he, or his speechwriters, demonstrated they have learned from past experience, scrupulously avoiding mentioning the settlements. He said that he thought the new unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas “poses an enormous obstacle to peace.” And he showed that he knows how to play to this particular crowd. “We will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, rejecting violence, and adhering to all existing agreements,” Obama said, to rising cheers. “And we once again call on Hamas to release Gilad Shalit, who has been kept from his family for five long years.” The crowd jumped, whooping, to its feet.
All of which served to highlight the built-in paradox of nearly all the major addresses this administration has made to the AIPAC crowd: The people who come to AIPAC’s annual policypalooza are activists who thrive on proximity to political power, but the rank and file have been dubious about, if not outright hostile to, Obama from the beginning. (It should not be forgotten that last year’s policy gathering was overshadowed by a similar diplomatic brouhaha over a curt telephone call between Netanyahu and Hillary Clinton, who had up to then been seen as a balancing pro-Israel force within the administration.) And so, Obama’s presence was a clear victory for the organization, which last year chose a close Obama friend and campaign activist, the Chicago music mogul Lee Rosenberg, as its leader—in large part, no doubt, because of the access he could offer.
Still, “Rosy”—as Obama referred chummily to Rosenberg—couldn’t dispel all of the awkwardness preceding the president’s speech, which capped three days of dramatic, and at times dramatically escalating, rhetoric from both Obama and Netanyahu. Reading the pre-conference punditry, it seemed clear that Obama’s doubters fall into two camps: Those who think his intentions toward Israel are actively malign, and those who think he is a well-intentioned Pollyanna figure. The president suavely ignored the former, likely reasoning that they are unswayable. To the latter, he addressed his closing comment. “The Talmud teaches us that so long as a person still has life, they should never abandon faith,” he said. “And so long as there are those who long for a better future, we will never abandon our pursuit of a just and lasting peace that ends this conflict with two states living side by side in peace and security. This is not idealism or naïveté. It’s a hard-headed recognition that a genuine peace is the only path that will ultimately provide for a peaceful Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people and a Jewish state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.”
Whether he convinced anyone of anything remains to be seen; the facts on the ground are what they are. But the same people who, minutes before the speech, sat with their arms crossed waiting to be convinced showed no hesitation in leaping to their feet to show their gratitude the minute they heard at least some things they liked, even if there were other things they did not. Barack Obama left the room with a “God bless Israel,” a wave, and a standing ovation. The soundtrack: “Hail to the Chief.”