“When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.”
— President Obama, before the AIPAC policy conference, March 4
President Obama spoke on Sunday before the annual policy conference of the American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The somewhat defensive speech appeared to be part of an effort to reassure Jewish voters in this election year that “when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.”
When Obama spoke to AIPAC in 2008, as a senator on the verge of securing the Democratic presidential nomination, he made a rookie mistake in talking about the status of Jerusalem. A day later, he felt compelled to clarify his comments in response to Palestinian complaints.
It was not an auspicious beginning for Obama’s venture into Arab-Israeli diplomacy — an issue that has caused him much heartache during his presidency. We have explored earlier whether his problems in this arena were deliberate (as some Republicans charge) or mainly the result of diplomatic ineptitude.
From nearly a decade of covering Middle East diplomacy, we think it is difficult to reach definitive conclusions on this question; it is in the eye of the beholder. We tend to lean toward diplomatic ineptitude as the primary explanation, considering that Palestinians are as irritated with Obama as Israelis are.
Indeed, readers who want to see different views of Obama’s handling of the Israeli diplomatic portfolio can watch two new Web videos. One is a lengthy, negative take by a group called the Emergency Committee for Israel and was released over the weekend; the other is a defense of Obama by the Democratic National Committee that was released last week.
The two videos offer a case study in how certain facts can be assembled to make an argument — while other facts are ignored.
‘Daylight: The Story of Obama and Israel’
The slick Emergency Committee video focuses exclusively on diplomacy, in particular the pressure the administration placed on Israel to stop settlement expansion.
Although the voiceover has a negative slant — bolstered by interviews with conservative commentators — the language is often carefully phrased, especially for an attack video. (The commentary, for instance, properly describes the controversy over Obama’s comments about 1967 lines, in contrast to what some GOP presidential aspirants have said the president said.)
What’s missing are facts that would provide balance and context.
For instance, Obama’s pressure on ending Israeli settlement expansion backfired spectacularly, but the video does not mention that successive presidents from both parties have complained about Israeli settlement expansion and the effect on the peace process.
President George H.W. Bush, for instance, opposed loan guarantees as long as settlements continued; he later insisted on reducing the loans by the amount used on housing in the occupied territories. Speaking of AIPAC, Bush earned the group’s ire when he once said at a news conference: “There are a thousand lobbyists up on the Hill today lobbying Congress for loan guarantees for Israel and I’m one lonely little guy down here asking Congress to delay its consideration of loan guarantees for Israel for 120 days.”
(Interestingly, Obama made no mention of settlements in his AIPAC speech this year or last year, although Vice President Biden in 2009 and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2010 emphasized the issue when they addressed AIPAC in the early years of the Obama administration.)
The video also emphasizes the fact that Obama visited Muslim countries in the region but not Israel, without mentioning that President George W. Bush did not visit Israel until the eighth year of his presidency, even though he, too, had made previous stops in the Middle East. Still, it is worth noting that Biden now says that not going to Jerusalem at the time of Obama’s Cairo speech was a mistake.
Finally, the video ignores the extensive security cooperation between Israel and the United States under Obama. It has won praise even from such Obama critics as former George W. Bush official Elliott Abrams (whose wife, Rachel Abrams, is on the board of the Emergency Committee).
“Obama has refrained from canceling programs, such as joint missile defense, that were started by the Bush administration,” said Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee. “On the other hand, Obama has singled out Israel for condemnation on dozens of occasions, weakened congressional sanctions on Iran and given Turkey and the Palestinians a pass on outrageously anti-Israel behavior. The most important security cooperation Israel can get is robust moral and political support from the president — precisely what Obama has withheld, and precisely what our documentary focused on.”
DNC ad: ‘The Truth’
The DNC ad, by contrast, focuses almost exclusively on the security cooperation, while ignoring the diplomatic maneuvers that have so irritated Israel’s supporters.
But here again, context is missing. The ad claims that Obama’s 2013 budget request for $3.1 billion in military aid (essentially one quarter of Israel’s military expenditures) is “an all-time high.” But military aid has been higher in at least two previous years, especially when inflation is considered, according to the Congressional Research Service (see page 25).
Moreover, much of this aid is the result of a 10-year Israel-U.S. security agreement signed near the end of the George W. Bush administration, which sought to raise annual military funding from $2.5 billion to $3.1 billion. Obama has stuck to the agreement, and supplemented it with such items as a mobile missile-defense system known as “Iron Dome.” But he is building on a platform erected by his Republican predecessor.
The Pinocchio Test
Both of these videos are relatively factual about the issues they focus on, but they mislead through omission. Readers should be wary of one-sided portrayals, especially in the foreign policy realm. The truth, especially in diplomacy, is often much more nuanced. (Note: the rating below is for the two videos, not Obama’s comments.)
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