More so than the speech (which was vintage Barack Obama — self-pitying, defensive and internally inconsistent), the reaction of those inside the AIPAC conference and from those not in attendance reflected the extraordinary degree to which the president has fragmented the Jewish community. The story of the day was: Friends of Israel are divided over Obama’s motives, goals and feelings about the Jewish state.
The first reaction preceded the speech. Before the president spoke, House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) delivered a rock-solid, pro-Israel speech that was in effect a poke in the eye of Obama. Hoyer went thorough nearly all of the problematic issues raised by Obama in his Thursday speech and — boom, boom, boom — then one by one, to the delight of the crowd, took positions contrary to or more clearly pro-Israel than Obama’s. It was a cathartic scene in which attendees reluctant to boo or hiss the president let it be known where they stood with loud and frequent standing ovations. Hoyer said that the United States should confirm the “memorandum of understanding” (the 2004 letters exchanged between President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon). Obama did not, although he borrowed one phrase referring to defensible borders. Hoyer announced that the parties should return to the bargaining table with no preconditions. Obama let it be known he’s certain where the border negotiations must start from. Hoyer was emphatic that the U.S. government will not fund a unity government with Hamas. Obama was silent on funding. Hoyer was the un-Obama — clear, unequivocally supportive of Israel and entirely within the mainstream, bipartisan pro-Israel tradition. No one I spoke to had a negative word to say of his address, and many attendees including Republicans were effusive in praise.
Then there was AIPAC’s statement after Obama’s speech:
AIPAC appreciates President Obama’s speech today at our annual policy conference in which he reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and the shared values that define both nations. In particular, we appreciate his statement that the U.S. does not expect Israel to withdraw to the boundaries that existed between Israel and Jordan in 1967 before the Six Day War. We also commend President Obama for his explicit condemnation of Hamas as a terrorist organization and his recognition that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a group that denies its fundamental right to exist. We also welcome the president’s reaffirmation of his long-standing commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The language is precise and cool (“appreciates” is all the group can muster until his remarks on Iran get some enthusiasm). Not as grim as AIPAC president Lee Rosenberg’s expression when introducing Obama, but hardly warm or enthusiastic.
Others were not so polite. A Capitol Hill staffer e-mailed me after the speech: “It was like a husband who had multiple affairs with another woman explaining to his wife that despite that unfortunate fact how much he cared for her. And she applauds his soliloquy.” Well, yes, never underestimate the ability of liberal Jews to praise a Democratic president, even one as equivocating on Israel at this one. Another Senate aide e-mailed me, “Unlike 2008 AIPAC speech where Obama said ‘Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,’ Obama didn’t make any reference to Jerusalem today. I guess that goes along the 1967 borders but Jerusalem is a whole issue by itself.” Obama first has to decide if the Knesset is in Israel, I suppose.
In interviews with about two dozen attendees of all ages, some observant Jews and some not, the reaction was evenly divided between those unimpressed if not dismayed (on the prospects of Obama’s reelection a middle aged man from Michigan said, “I don’t want to look into that abyss”) and those willing to believe Obama cleared everything up. As two ladies from Georgia told me, “We thought it was great!” They were so very pleased that Obama “explained himself.” By contrast, Moshe from Florida was obviously peeved. “What is the real Obama — the one who spoke Thursday or the one who spoke today? Those who drank the Kool-Aid are still going to support him.” He nevertheless thought it was good that Obama “tried to correct” himself.
Outside the hall, next to a block full of noisy demonstrators accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and worse, I spoke to two young men from Maryland. One was a high school delegate, the other a kippah-wearing student from a Jewish school. The first young man ventured the view that Obama had done well clearing up any confusion. The second was highly critical, arguing that it is not up to the United States to prejudge borders. “Israel is such a small country,” he said, that it shouldn’t be pressed to give up the small amount of land it has. Hearing his companion, the first grew more critical, saying Obama shouldn’t have put out concessions for Israel without mention of the right of return. The second then added that the speech was typically Obama — trying to borrow here and borrow there and please everyone. He said wryly, “At least he was clear on Thursday.” Both heartily agreed that Hoyer’s speech was better.
A group of three seniors from Michigan were all critical. One of the two men said, “It was a political speech. In 2007 he came here and said Jerusalem should be undivided. I didn’t believe him then, and I don’t believe him now.” In the same hallway two twenty-something men from Washington gushed. Because Obama reiterated the Quartet principles to get the Palestinians to the table, one of them was not bothered that on the substance of the negotiations only Israel’s concessions were mentioned. A California Republican and retired lawyer had this take: “The president reinterprets what he said on Thursday. Negotiations must achieve borders based on 1967 lines with land swaps. Still silent on Jerusalem, refugees and how to achieve an agreement with Palestinians that include Hamas leadership.” He bemoaned the lack of an exciting Republican presidential candidate.
Two men, one D.C. media representative for a Jewish group and one a teacher from a Jewish high school in New York, were seated together at a table outside the main hall. The teacher was measured but obviously annoyed with the speech. “He played to the room he was in.” The D.C. man was thrilled. “I voted for Obama last time. I’ll vote for him again.” No worries at all about the second term.
The most fascinating and informative reaction came from a middle-aged couple. These Democrats from the Rust Belt voted for Obama and will vote for him again. The wife said, “I think he intends well.” She confided with some self-deprecating humor that she has “a shrine to Obama” at home with an Obama sign and a TIME magazine cover. Nevertheless, both were candid. The wife said, “We were standing and applauding, but the row in front of us was seated. No applause.” Both readily concurred that Obama has divided the Jewish community like no other president. “Say what you will,” but George W. Bush was solid on Israel, the wife commented. As for the speech, the husband and then the wife said they had come out of the hall thinking “he was too vague” still on the 1967 issue. Talking about it over lunch, they still couldn’t say they entirely understood is position. And they both heartily agreed that they were bothered when Obama mentioned the 1967 border but nothing about the right of return. Both acknowledged that many of their Jewish friends were antagonistic toward Obama. The husband concluded that Obama’s AIPAC speech really didn’t change anything.
The main takeaway from AIPAC: The Jewish community, mostly liberal and the vast majority Democrats, is divided on Obama. Some have convinced themselves that Obama will be a friend to Israel, even in a second term, and that he doesn’t really take the Palestinians’ side. Others are still troubled, and the remainder are dismissive of Obama, seeing the AIPAC speech as a dishonest effort to cover up his real views aired Thursday, to the wider world and not to a pro-Israel audience.
One member of the media joked, “If he nuked Tel Aviv, maybe the Jewish vote would go down to 60 percent.” He was kidding, but the ability of liberal Jews to reassure themselves that Obama really is devoted to Israel is impressive. Evidence to the contrary is dismissed or downplayed, and any hint of Obama’s positive attitude toward Israel is grasped tightly, with delight. It’s okay to vote for him. I can do this with a clear conscience. But in the quiet of the night, do they lose sleep over the prospect of a second Obama term, one without the restraint of an impending election?