An Ultra Orthodox Jewish man walks past mannequins on a street in Jerusalemâ€™s Old City May 25, 2011. Palestinians and Israelis alike saw little prospect of a fresh start to Middle East peace talks on Wednesday after Israeli PM Netanyahuâ€™s keynote speech to Congress.
There was absolutely nothing about President Barack Obamaâ€™s Middle East speech to get excited about (and even less in his statement following Fridayâ€™s meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu). The president did not even attempt to set out an action plan; he offered broad principles, ones that have been offered before by five previous presidents.
He delivered the speech in an effort to get the jump on Netanyahu who is in town to address Congress and AIPAC. Bibiâ€™s goal is to mobilize his followers against any U.S. efforts to promote an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Netanyahu, who grew up in the United States, is a de facto Republican and, as in 1998 when President Clinton was in office, he wants to strengthen the GOP vis a vis the Democrats.
Delivering the speech was probably a mistake. But Obama felt that he had to deliver it — to preempt Netanyahuâ€™s war-mongering with some good pro-Israel boilerplate and to neutralize some of the opposition to U.S. policies toward Israel that is weakening our standing with the evolving Arab democracies.
For obvious national security reasons, the United States cannot afford to have a new generation of Arab democrats in nations as significant as Egypt hating us because they view America as being in Israelâ€™s pocket. A strong rhetorical endorsement of peace would both help neutralize Netanyahuâ€™s demagoguery and defuse opposition to both America and Israel in the Muslim world. Meanwhile, it would please Netanyahuâ€™s followers.
In the end, it didnâ€™t turn out that way. As the Wall Street Journal reported in an article called â€œJewish Donors Warn Obama on Israel,â€ a tiny (but incredibly well-heeled) group of donors told Obama in advance that any deviation from the line laid down by Netanyahu would cost Obama campaign contributions. The article quotes a bunch of fat cats, unknown to most Jewish Americans who essentially threatened Obama.
Itâ€™s crazy. In 2008 78% of Jews voted for Obama. According to the definitive American Jewish Committee poll, Israel ranks 7th on the list of issues on which Jews cast their votes with 3% citing it as the top concern. 54% mentioned the economy, and many more cited health care, energy and a host of other issues.
But the self-appointed fat cat representatives of the Jewish community tell the White House that our #1 concern is Israel. And, for the AIPAC directed donors, it probably is.
And that is why President Obama delivered a speech on Thursday that was utterly innocuous. There was nothing in it that has not been said before by a host of previous presidents. Virtually all his empathy was directed at Israel while he offered a little sympathy, and nothing else, to the Palestinians. He did what he thought he had to do: appease AIPAC and Netanyahu while pleasing Arab democrats too.
But he failed. Arabs saw the speech as a bunch of empty words. And the Israeli firsters went ballistic. Why? Because of one paragraph.
The president said:
The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
And suddenly all hell broke loose. But not immediately. Initially, the right-wing of the â€œpro-Israelâ€ claque praised Obama for not saying anything that challenged Netanyahu but then Netanyahu, said that he was outraged by the reference to the 1967 lines.
But then the robotic Israel-firsters switched their line as quickly as Red 1930s folk singers changed their lyrics when Moscow complained of deviation. (Stop bashing Nazi Germany; we just signed a pact with it).
This is beyond ridiculous. Obama did not say that Israel would have to go back to the 1967 borders; he said that the â€œborders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines…â€ That means that Israelis and Palestinians would sit down with a map that dated back to 1967 and decide what would be Israel and what would be Palestine. What other â€œlinesâ€ could a deal be based on? The border between China and Russia?
As far back as the 1967 United Nations Resolution 242, which Israel signed, it has been the stated policy of the entire world (including Israel) that Israel would return to the â€˜67 borders, with alterations made, as necessary, to guard Israelâ€™s security. Every American president has said that and every Israeli government has accepted it. Even AIPAC supports the â€œtwo-state solution,â€ which means a Palestinian state in the territories captured by Israel in 1967. Where else?
So what are these people up to when they suddenly decide to descend into faux-rage when Obama says what they have been saying all along?
The answer is simple. The Israel-first crowd has decided on two things: (1) They do not want Israeli-Palestinian peace, period. They want Israel to keep all the land. And (2) they want to see President Obama defeated in the next election, hoping against hope that they can drive the Obama Jewish vote, and especially campaign contributions, way below 2008 levels. They donâ€™t trust him. They suspect (hopefully, rightly) that in his heart he does not believe the status quo loving nonsense Dennis Ross is feeding him.
Obamaâ€™s mistake is to think he can appease these people by going to AIPAC (as he will do next week) or to Israel (as he probably will this summer) and trying to explain himself. Unless he is prepared to tell AIPAC and right-wing Israelis that he supports both settlements and the permanent disenfranchisement of Palestinians, he will not win over these people. They are not potential friends, not of him or of U.S. interests. Or, frankly, of Israelâ€™s. (They seem to prefer the West Bank over Israel itself).
Instead, he should mobilize Americans, pro-Israel Jews and non-Jews, like those of J Street who support the two-state solution and territorial compromise. He should reach out to Palestinians who are prepared to live in peace with Israel (including Hamas, if it will permanently end violence against Israel). And he should support moderate Israelis (still a sizable percentage of the population) who hate the occupation and are desperate to achieve peace with the Palestinians.
Trying to appease Netanyahu and AIPAC empowers the right and cuts moderates off at the knees. Itâ€™s time for Obama to treat these people as what they are: enemies of everything he aspires to do. Why would the president think he can possibly find friends on the right? He canâ€™t.