President Obama blew it yesterday. The Israelis are infuriated, numerous sharp-eyed lawmakers spotted the forced concessions Obama was demanding of Israel and, if former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block is any indication, the most prominent pro-Israel Jewish group is very, very worried. So what does Obama do? He reverses course — fast!
On the BBC last night, Obama immediately nixed his definitive language on the 1967 borders and reverted to language that sounded more in tune with that of former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush:
To the BBC, the president said, “The basis for negotiations will involve looking at that 1967 border, recognizing that conditions on the ground have changed and there are going to need to be swaps to accommodate the interests of both sides. That’s on the one hand and on the other hand, and this was an equally important part of the speech, Israel is going to have to feel confident about its security on the West Bank and that security element is going to be important to the Israelis.”
The president said that the Israelis “will not be able to move forward unless they feel that they themselves can defend their territory particularly given what they have seen happen in Gaza and the rockets that have been fired by Hezbollah.”
That is as sure a sign as any that the speech was an overstep, and a misstep, that the Israelis are infuriated and that Obama is now in a pinch.
What to make of all the liberal Jewish groups and pundits who fawned over the speech and insisted there was no change in U.S. policy contained in Obama’s statement on the 1967 borders (which is a misnomer; there is only the 1949 armistice line)? They have, to the extent they had any credibility, discredited themselves as reliable translators to Jews and Americans at large of the peace process. Whether through ignorance or through an insatiable need to defend a liberal president at all costs, they leapt into the fray to deny that Obama said anything damaging at all. The proof of Obama’s misstep is his swift backpedal, which, I suspect, will continue today.
A prominent pro-Israel liberal, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) was one of the first to sound the alarm, saying he liked hearing that Israel was a Jewish state, but Obama missed the boat on several key items:
“First, I am unclear as to why the President did not recount the three conditions of the Quartet, comprised of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia, for dealing with Hamas. (1) Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist, (2) Hamas must renounce terrorism, and (3) Hamas must commit to all of the agreements signed by Israel and the Palestinians. Those conditions, laid down in 2006, establish the foundation of our policy toward Hamas and must not be disregarded or glossed over. Further, we cannot expect Israel to negotiate with a Palestinian Authority which has Hamas, a terrorist organization, as a working partner until Hamas accepts these conditions.
“Second, the 1967 armistice lines were simply not defensible, and Israel must not be made to return to them. Moreover, United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which forms the basis of any future peace between Israelis and Palestinians, does not require Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines in exchange for peace. The President is correct that land swaps built into a peace agreement could make Israel’s borders safe and secure, but make no mistake about it – such territorial adjustments would be very significant so that Israel would no longer be 9 miles wide at its narrowest point.
“The reason that there has been no progress toward a peace agreement is that the Palestinians have refused to sit down with Israel and have used every excuse under the sun to refuse to negotiate. President Abbas, with all his talk of moderation, has been anything but. It is time to tell the Palestinians that the only way to statehood is through negotiations at the bargaining table, not through unilateral actions.
“The President still has the opportunity to elaborate on these points when he speaks on Sunday about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and I, for one, will listen carefully to what he has to say.”
It is interesting to note which pro-Israel groups and individuals were entirely silent yesterday — AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) [See update below] and a fleet of other strong pro-Israel Democrats (e.g., Reps. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Steve Rothman (D-N.J.). They no doubt were slumped in their chairs, slack-jawed. They probably would be tremendously relieved if the president in essence excised his offensive comments from further discussion. If not, they will, as in the settlement-freeze controversy, be forced to choose between partisan loyalty and being true to their convictions.
As for Obama, whether he cloddishly used language without understanding its full import or whether he intended once again to stick it to Bibi Netanyahu, the damage is done. The Israelis are reminded that Obama is not a president who truly understands the Jewish state and can be counted on to defend it.
Jewish voters who were nervous before are likely more nervous now. And just imagine, in a second term Obama won’t necessarily care what either the Israelis or pro-Israel voters have to say. There will be no backpedals then.
UPDATE (11:32 a.m.): Sen. Lieberman has issued a statement that must have the White House reeling. After nice words about the rest of the speech he bashes the president on Israel:
“Unfortunately, President Obama’s important and constructive speech embracing and supporting the peaceful, democratic revolutions in the Arab world was also undermined by an unhelpful and surprising set of remarks about Israel and the Palestinians that will not advance the peace process and in fact is likely to set it back.
“While the President made some strong statements about the “unshakeable” support for Israel’s security and rightly criticized the Palestinian pursuit of a symbolic statehood declaration at the UN in September, his unilateral call for negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps -- the first time any president has adopted this position -- was profoundly ill-advised. As in the case of the President’s counterproductive demand for a settlement freeze two years ago, unilateral statements of this sort do nothing to bring the two parties back to the negotiating table and in fact make it harder for them to do so. They also damage the relationship of trust that is critical to peacemaking.
“In particular, the President’s remarks have revived and exacerbated fears in Israel about the commitment and understanding of this Administration with regard to their unique security situation. The fact is, while the exciting and hopeful new reality in the Arab world is the Arab spring, the newest reality in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not hopeful. It is the threatening new unity government between the leadership of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, a group which the U.S. government has long designated as terrorist because it is committed to violence and the destruction of Israel.
“In the days ahead, I hope President Obama will make clear Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a Fatah-Hamas unity government until Hamas accepts the Quartet conditions. I also hope that the President will make clear that his Administration recognizes the 1967 borders themselves are no longer an acceptable endpoint for negotiations because they do not allow Israel to defend itself, and that any peace agreement must reflect new realities on the ground, including the major new Israeli communities that have grown up since 1967, and the need for an extended presence by the IDF in the Jordan River Valley.
“In the past few months, the forces of freedom and self-determination have begun to move inexorably through the region. It is in that movement where we can find the greatest hope for peace between neighbors in the region, including Israelis and Palestinians.”