On Sunday, President Obama goes to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual gathering, where his reception is likely to be polite – since AIPAC officials have instructed the thousands of conference-goers not to boo him – but chilly. The last time Obama appeared at AIPAC was in June, 2008, as a candidate for president, and I wrote about his appearance then, as I watched it from the press section. In the speech then, Obama kowtowed to AIPAC, seeking Jewish votes, even though AIPAC represents a narrow slice of American Jewish opinion, mostly right-wing Jews and uber-hawkish Democrats, not mainstream liberal Jewish opinion. As I reported in 2008, Obama checked all the pro-Israel boxes:
“He learned about the Holocaust from a camp counselor at age 11, he said, and his great-uncle helped to liberate Buchenwald. Check. ‘As president I will never compromise when it comes to Israeli security.’ Check. He advocates strengthening US-Israeli military ties, and wants to sign a memorandum of understanding to provide Israel with $30 billion in military aid over the next ten years to ‘ensure Israel’s qualitative military advantage.’ Check. No negotiations with Hamas and Hezbollah. Check. And while he will talk to Iran, it will be ‘tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing–if, and only if–it can advance the interests of the United States.’ Check. And just in case AIPAC thinks that he won’t act, Obama added: ‘I will always keep the threat of military action on the table.’”
This year, Obama’s AIPAC speech comes three days after this Middle East address, in which he called on Israel to agree to a settlement that starts with its return to pre-1967 (i.e., post-1948) borders. His call for Israel to go back to this borders, with adjustments, is hardly shocking, and it’s been U.S. policy for a long while. But it’s causes a huge uproar from Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Republicans, various pro-Israel hawks, and of course the editorial page of the Washington Post. Netanyahu has openly denounced Obama’s speech, and the opportunistic Republicans have gleefully joined in. But even the Post editorial, which slams Obama for daring to open a confrontation with Netanyahu, admits:
“[Obama] endorsed one of the conditions Palestinians have tried to set for talks: that they be based on Israel’s 1967 border lines, with swaps of land to accommodate large Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This is not a big change in U.S. policy. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, along with previous Israeli governments, have supported the approach. But Mr. Netanyahu has not yet signed on, and so Mr. Obama’s decision to confront him with a formal U.S. embrace of the idea, with only a few hours’ warning, ensured a blowup.”
Does that makes sense? No. By simply stating what is long-standing U.S. policy, Obama “ensured a blowup”?
Maybe Netanyahu senses that behind the scenes Obama wants a lot more from Israel than he outlined in his Middle East speech. In fact, the administration is far more divided that it appears on the surface. In his speech this week, Obama avoided discussing either Jerusalem or the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, two hot-button issues, but his decision to call for a return to 1967 borders was made without informing Netanyahu, who learned about it only hours before in a phone call from Hillary Clinton. But the pro-Israel Rasputin in the White House, Dennis Ross, is strenuously engaged in an effort to ensure that Obama stays within the boundaries of one-sided discourse on Israel. Surprisingly, today’s New York Times carries a front-page analysis of Ross’ role, worth reading in its entirety. Says the Times:
“By almost all accounts, Dennis B. Ross — Middle East envoy to three presidents, well-known architect of incremental and painstaking diplomacy in the Middle East that eschews game-changing plays — is Israel’s friend in the Obama White House and one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in town. His strategy sometimes contrasts sharply with that of a president who has bold instincts and a willingness to elevate the plight of the Palestinians to a status equal to that of the Israelis.”
And it quotes the docile Abdullah, king of Jordan – whose father was on the CIA’s payroll – about Ross thusly: “We get good responses [from the State Department and the Pentagon]. But not from the White House, and we know the reason why is because of Dennis Ross.”
George Mitchell, notes the Times, resigned in April – and it was made public only this week – because of Ross’ obstructionism.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are mindlessly backing Netanyahu’s extremist views. Listen to Mitt Romney: “President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus. He has disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace. He has also violated a first principle of American foreign policy, which is to stand firm by our friends.”