Obama at AIPAC – Conciliatory but Unapologetic

The president reaffirmed U.S.-Israel ties, rejected the mantle of Mideast peace revolutionary, stood his ground on the key issues, and invited Netanyahu's response.

WASHINGTON - There was much curiosity over how President Barack Obama would use his AIPAC address to confront the controversy created by the part of his speech Thursday dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In particular, all were eager to see his reaction to the harsh responses from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the mention of the “1967 lines with agreed land swaps.”

Today, Obama did it in the most straightforward way: he acknowledged the controversy, reiterated his position, insisted there was nothing revolutionary in the principles he mentioned, and threw the ball to Netanyahu, who is yet to deliver his own speeches to AIPAC and the United States Congress.

“I know that stating these principles - on the issues of territory and security -- generated some controversy over the past few days,” the president said. “I know very well that the easy thing to do, particularly for a president preparing for reelection, is to avoid any controversy. I don’t need Rahm [Emanuel] to tell me that. Don’t need [David] Axelrod to tell me that. But I said to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I believe that the current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination. I also believe that real friends talk openly and honestly with one another. So I want to share with you some of what I said to the Prime Minister."

Netanyahu wasn’t in the vast crowd of thousands of activists gathered at the capital's Convention Center – he watched the speech from the Blair House, the accommodation for presidential guests. But he clearly was one of those to whom the President was directing his comments, as he once again presented Middle East reality as he sees it, and the dangers of prevarication - from a demographic and defense perspective – as well as the risks brought by the weariness of it all on the part of the international community.

“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,” Obama pointed out.

“Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself in the absence of a genuine peace. A new generation of Arabs is reshaping the region. A just and lasting peace can no longer be forged with one or two Arab leaders. Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained. And just as the context has changed in the Middle East, so too has it been changing in the international community over the last several years. There’s a reason why the Palestinians are pursuing their interests at the United Nations. They recognize that there is an impatience with the peace process, or the absence of one, not just in the Arab World - in Latin America, in Asia, and in Europe. And that impatience is growing, and it’s already manifesting itself in capitals around the world.”

Obama did wheel out all the gestures this pro-Israel crowd would expect of an American President: He mentioned the “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security, several times referred to Israel as the Jewish state and homeland of the Jewish people, lashed out at Hamas and Iran, reiterated his “steadfast opposition to any attempt to de-legitimize the State of Israel” (to much applause, as one would guess), and stressed that “peace cannot be imposed on the parties to the conflict."

But ultimately Obama stuck to the position that he has nothing to be sorry about regarding his comments on Thursday. The message was clear: there is one alternative which demands hard choices, and there is another alternative which might be a disaster for the State of Israel.

The president tossed the ball back into Netanyahu’s court, claiming that what he said three days ago should come as no surprise, and it was up to Israel's leaders to make the "hard choices" for peace.

A White House official told Haaretz after the President’s speech Sunday that these are basic principles. There had been no plan to unveil a peace initiative at the AIPAC conference, and no illusions the parties would get back to negotiations that day.

“He said the same thing on Thursday, as he did today,” the staffer said. “Whether it cleared the controversy, we will hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu - he has two more speeches this week. But the President has been very clear in what he said.”

Without doubt, his appearance at the AIPAC conference shows that President Obama does have in mind domestic politics, the approaching elections, and maybe even the Jewish donors.

Obama - AP - May 22, 2011

As with Obama’s Thursday speech, he didn’t give any specific plan, set any dates, declare any envoy missions, or give any hint on how he will proceed with the peace process. But what was clear is that for Netanyahu to be smart, he must build on Obama’s second speech, not reject it or single out one phrase. Obama didn’t get into the refugee problem or Jerusalem – the implications was that the final issues are for the two sides to resolve. He made clear that he is not going to make these decisions for him – and there are little options left, other than discussion based on the 1967 lines with agreed swaps of the territories.