Like many people, I expected little from Obama’s performance at AIPAC. He has to straddle parallel universes: the real one, in which most countries recognize Israel as tantamount to an international scofflaw, and the American domestic political universe in which Israel is always right. The US’s real allies and the rest of the world have long wearily resigned themselves to how, as with his speech at the State Department, the President has to pander to pro-Israeli organizations and the Congress members whose support he needs on domestic issues.
Obama congratulated himself, deservedly, for continuing to raise unpalatable issues with elections in the air, and while pandering in a traditionally nauseous way, there was some reassurance from the sound of silence in his speech.
AIPAC’s conference is a mind-numbing experience. “My country right or wrong” is a rightly derided principle. But at AIPAC ten thousand people are assembled dedicated to the proposition that someone else’s country should be supported, right or wrong, even if it flouts every principle they support at home — and even if its civil laws on marriage and conversion deny the branches of Judaism to which most practicing American Jews adhere.
The organizations tend to be donor-driven rather than grass roots motivated. American Jews, true to their liberal roots, voted for Obama in higher proportions than any other ethnic group — even as a raucous minority of the community questioned Obama’s citizenship and Christianity. That minority is disproportionately represented in the counsels of AIPAC and many of the “official” organizations and tends to Republican, Likudnik hawkishness.
But they also tend to think in slogans and catchphrases, without comparing them to reality, let alone with Robert Burns’s “giftie to see oursel’s as others see us.” They have been helped to remain in their parallel universe because presidents and secretaries of state have pandered (with the notable exception of James Baker) for decades to AIPAC — and no one notices. As is customary, dogs are biting men.
The media attention to President Obama’s address is significant since for the first time in twenty years, there is visible crack showing between the White House and AIPAC — and Israel. It is going too far to say that Obama is biting the dog — but he is sinking his gums into the Lobby and Netanyahu. He is doing so to the background of an American Jewish community that is split more than ever before, and certainly more so than the “official” spokesmen and organizations reveal.
While admitting there are problems with a unity Palestinian government, “We will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, rejecting violence, and adhering to all existing agreements,” Obama did not exclude negotiations, but in effect put conditions, which Hamas has, in reality, already gone a long way to meet and is on the way to go further.
One hopes that he realizes that the key phrases he used, such as the need to accept Israel’s “right to exist,” were introduced by Israeli leaders precisely because they were unacceptable to Palestinians. He might even have noticed how quickly Israel switched from refusing to negotiate because the authority was divided, to refusing because it is united! It is like demanding that American Indian tribes accept that their dispossession was right and goes beyond acceptance of the obvious fact of Israel’s existence and its now nearly universal acceptance as an established state.
Such phrases have traditionally been used in the Levantine blame game in which the purpose of negotiations is not to reach a solution but to blame the other side for failure. But there is always a way to wiggle — a phrase that would irk some Israelis would be for the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s “right to exist under UN Decisions!”
One hopes that the president is now playing this game with Netanyahu. One also hopes he harbors grudges. For the world’s most benefitted welfare queen to publicly dress down the president of its benefactor at the White House should give most Americans some frisson of indignation.
While in the real world, Obama’s insistence on the 1967 boundaries as a basis for negotiation for land swaps has been generally accepted, Palestinians irate at this admitted denial of the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force,” may have missed, along with nuance-free AIPACers, his endorsement of the Palestinian people’s “right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state,” which presumably implies that in return for giving up some of the settled area, the Palestinian state will have a land bridge between Gaza and the West Bank. One can see why he might not have chosen to spell that out for AIPAC!
While he stated a fact, “No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state,” he did not state a principle. He said, “The United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the UN or in any international forum. Because Israel’s legitimacy is not a matter for debate.” He did not say that the US would veto a UN acceptance of Palestine as a member state.
Indeed, he challenged the sloganeers with reality. “The number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian territories. This will make it harder and harder – without a peace deal – to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state.” Secondly he pointed to how atavistic the old obsession with territory as security is since “technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself in the absence of a genuine peace,” and finally, he pointed to the changes in Israel’s neighbours, so peace can no longer be bought with few local kleptocrats. “Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained.”
If the US is retain influence in the region, it can no longer pay exclusive attention to Israeli public opinion while sending a few billion to local rulers. It, and Israel, have to show ordinary Arab citizens that they are serious about peace. Obama cannot regret the consequences to Palestinians of occupation while carrying on passing the ammunition to Israel.
It is unlikely that Netanyahu will voluntarily relinquish the not so secret Likud desire for an Arab-free state all the way to the Jordan. Obama has, perhaps deliberately and adroitly, maneuvered the Israeli Prime Minister into insulting the President of the US. He now has to follow up and show that there are consequences for Israel.
Obama balked at his best opportunity, which was the UN resolution on the settlements. He should stop equivocating and come out plainly with a declaration that if Netanyahu continues to refuse to come to terms with reality in the region, then he cannot take a US veto in the Security Council against Palestinian membership for granted nor even a nay vote in the General Assembly against a declaration of statehood.
Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world. He is currently writing a book on the Americans who blame the UN for all the US’s ills. For more by Ian Williams visit Deadline Pundit.