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At AIPAC Summit, Obama Stays His Course

Reiterates stance on 1967 borders with swaps; is cheered for remarks on Hamas, Shalit

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President Obama addresses AIPAC this morning.(Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

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.”

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Binyamin in O says:

AIPAC, and Israel, know which side of their bread gets the American butter. The first half of Obama’s speech was devoted to reciting the litany of things America does for Israel, from Iron Dome to Security Council vetoes. Implicit message: watch out Bibi. And when an American president has to say every 15 minutes that the “bonds between us are unshakeable”, you know they are the shakiest they have ever been.

I would submit to skeptics that even if a peace deal is not a guarantee against war, neither is not-having a peace deal.

That if Hamas and its benefactors and allies are planning hostilities, they will be coming either way, and if that’s the case, it is best to have already exhausted all diplomatic efforts at trying to avert war beforehand.

Without having earned some kind of credit in the international community, however slight may be its worth, for extending the olive branch, then a war will be impossible to prosecute.

Every conceivable objection to hypothetical violations of human rights by the IDF will be raised, domestically and abroad. Even the U.S. will succumb to pressure to rein in its ally. Ties between the two countries will fray even more than they have, as supporting Israel begins to turn into a political liability. The Palestinians have been too successful with their PR, and Israel has been incompetent with its strategic communications.

As a consequence, Israel’s military abilities will be compromised, and Hamas will survive to fight another day, but with the support of millions of newly enfranchised Arabs in neighboring countries.

Pursuing a deal now is the course Israel can follow, especially if Abbas can’t be trusted.

Thanks for the weekend coverage.

That should be ‘the only course Israel can follow, especially if Abbas can’t be trusted.’

The realities of modern warfare are such that you can’t win the war without winning the PR battle, or at least not losing the PR battle.

Jehudah Ben-Israel says:

UN Security Council Resolution, 242, in no way suggests what the future boundaries of Israel should be. In fact, specifically, when addressing the subject, 242 refers to “secure and recognized boundaries”.

Any attempt to see Israel giving up on its security by ensuring that its future boundaries be other than secure and recognized by the warring parties, as called for by 242, is indicative of how much the security of the nation-state of the Jewish people, Israel, is of little or no importance to him/her, not withstanding statements such as “our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable”.

P.S. UN Security Council Resolution, 242, does not call for the setting up of an additional state in the region nor does 242 mention concepts such as “Palestinians”, “Palestine” or a “Palestinian state”.

Jehudah Ben-Israel says:

Now, after Obama’s speech, it is for the Palestian Arabs to approach the table at which Israel has been sitting and waiting for them for the past two years to talk peace. Let us hope, when they do so, that they will come clean handed and in good faith to negotiate, while knowing full well that they will be asked to accept Israel’s right to be, to exsit as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and that a peace treaty, if and when is signed, will mean the “end of the conflict and the end of all future demands. This poster is waiting…..

Carl says:

Can someone explain to me how he says that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a Palestinian side that includes Hamas (which is how things stand today) and also urges Israel to negotiate a peace settlement? Am I missing something?
By the way fw is wrong. The Sri lankan government wiped out the tamil movement killing thousands and no one said a word. NATO kills civilians weekly in drone attacks and no one says a word. The Russians killed tens of thousands in Grozny and no one says a word. Israel kills a few terrorists who attacked Israeli soldiers while trying to break the Gaza blockade and it is literally front page news for several days. It doesn’t matter what Israel does it will always lose the PR war.

H/Ramat-Gan/Israel says:

…and again he still said nothing about the so called “Right of Return”, so I will repeat again Mr. Tracy: You are trying to sell us fairy tales

Boruch Hashem, Monday, May 23, 2011 As the exchanges between the Prime Minister of Israel and the President of the US, may I offer considerations regarding both. Firstly, Mr. Netanyahu may be vocalizing his awareness of the direction encouraged by Obama, and arguing like a good Jewish mama who knows the bottom line is not in her hands. Having stomped around the U of C campus in the days when Mr. President was a youngster, I know where he’s coming from. But,!: Neither them nor the media are righteous in philosophizing democratic principles of government, in only a one man one vote equality in housing and education throughout a unified demographic entity will meet my standards. If Israel gets serious about demographic concerns it will be imminently clear that the Arabian population spread upon the face of the Carmel Mountains as well as the Bedouin population multiples of increase upon the face of the Negev can never be excluded from Palestinian loyalties. Mesopotamian civilization is Islamic and the quest for a stichkel contiguity is getting rougher and tougher for the Jewish people to lay claim to anywhere in the world. We must honor commitments according to the admonition dini moanos dinim; the ahtzum yahdayim phase most certainly cannot transmit lasting values and the truth is, we should have remained within the 67 borders for our own well-being – as suggested then by Gedoli Torah.

Paul Leber says:

Why would anyone trust anything Obama says? He regularly says one thing, only to retract or reverse it the next, typically without acknowledgement that he had previously held a contrary view or even a trace of embarrassment. In June 2008, as a candidate for Presidents, Obama stood before AIPAC and told a cheering audience that he admired Israel, and would, as President, ensure that it remained strong and safe within secure borders, with Jerusalem as its capital. ” Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” Within a day, he reversed himself.

Last Thursday, Obama, who, as President, has been picking unprovoked fights with Bibi over the past 2 years, really took it to the Jewish State. Falsely identifying the armistice lines of the 1948-49 Arab initiated Invasion of the fledgling Jewish State as Israel’s 1967 border, he not only went back on his campaign promises, but overturned what has been US foreign policy for more than 40 years. Why he did remains a mystery because his gratuitous public statement last Thrusday clearly does not advance the cause of peace, although it does do considerable damage to Israel. In staking out his position, Obama promulgates a series of misrepresentations and falsehoods. UN Resolution 242 does NOT require Israel to withdraw to the 1948-49 armistice lines. It does require all the parties involved in hostilities to agree to live in Peace within agreed upon and secure borders. All prior US presidents have endorsed this interpretation of the resolution although Bush 43 did promise Israel that if it took bold steps for Peace (e.g., withdraw from Gaza), the US would support territorial adjustments to the ceasefire lines in place on June 4, 1967. So when Obama came before AIPAC on May 22, 2011 and claimed that there’s nothing new in his policy statement, he’s either uninformed (misinformed by his advisors) or lying. Whatever the explanation, his behavior is reprehensible.

Jill Zimmerman says:

Great summary Allison. Thank you.

Alter says:

I am sick and tired of hearing about the threats from Hamas. Their armory, most frequently used, consists of some remarkably accurate teenage rock throwers who, if they injure a member of the IDF can and often are shot dead. If that doesn’t stop the rock throwing there are armored vehicles and tanks to pursue them, each of which can attain speeds far greater than the fastest fleeing teenager. The rocks, notwithstanding remarkable accuracy, strike harmlessly against the armor. If that doesn’t work, there are always the Jets flown by some of the world’s most skilled fighter pilots, which can and do flatten homes, infrastructure and water supplies. So far not a single rock has struck a jet. And if these unruly teen-agers should somehow manage to hit the jets with their rocks, there are always the nuclear weapons that can be unleashed against them, including from submarines. The rock throwers fortunately are far more accurate than Hamas rockets which typically fall harmlessly. Unfortunately some very few hit their mark with lethal results. Does anyone really believe that Israel can’t defend itself against the Palestinians with or without Hamas? Of course not. Bibi wants more territory not peace. Now, right now is the time to pursue peace at almost any cost and co-opt the Arabs with Jewish brains and know how. The alternative is a tragic disaster for Israel with or without its nuclear arsenal. And stop the lawyer arguments. Israel stands alone in the world with only the United States behind it. The President is tired of being pushed around. The Congress will likely come to realize that its main responsibility is to the American people not to the lobbyists of a foreign power. American Jews are, at an ever increasing rate, recognizing that the operative word in that description is “American”, and the rebellion against the “Israel first at all costs” by American Jews is steadily growing bigger. Soon Israel will be alone… when it need not be.

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At AIPAC Summit, Obama Stays His Course

Reiterates stance on 1967 borders with swaps; is cheered for remarks on Hamas, Shalit

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