Appearing before the annual conference of AIPAC, the American pro-Israel lobby, is what all candidates for president of the United States dream about. It's their big chance to attract the Jewish vote and Jewish contributions. It's the setting where they can reap the benefits of declarations of loyalty to Israel, elegantly bypassing anything that might rile supporters. That's where, 16 years ago, Republican candidate Bob Dole announced a legislative initiative, at an inopportune moment, to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in one of the low points in the peace process.
No American president or presidential candidate has ever told this large Jewish audience of supporters of Israel the truth. Until yesterday, that is. Obama did not go to the AIPAC conference to iron out differences between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He went there to settle misunderstandings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Obama's explanation regarding his statement last week at the State Department regarding borders, meaning the 1967 borders with mutually agreed-upon swaps, has been acceptable to the Palestinian side for some time. Any diplomat trainee at the Israeli Foreign Ministry would know that not only would Palestinians never agree to have the Israeli army stationed for decades along the Jordan River, but neither would the Americans support Netanyahu's demand that the IDF control Palestinian territory.
It is not coincidental that seasoned Palestinian adviser Saeb Erekat quickly announced yesterday that if Netanyahu were to accept that principle, the path to negotiations would be open and Israel would be able to spare itself and Obama the headache of a vote at the United Nations in September on recognition of a Palestinian state.
Obama fed Netanyahu a heaping portion of Passover bitter herbs garnished with sweet apple haroset. He did not try to make nice. After long deliberations, the die was cast at the White House. Plans would no longer be tailor-made for the government of hour in Israel, as America's perennial Middle East adviser Dennis Ross was known to do.
Yesterday came the turn of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has learned a thing or two about Netanyahu's maneuvers. Precisely in the run-up to a tough election year, Obama decided to adopt the approach of the secretary of state, to take off the kid gloves and show the true face of the head of the Jewish state on his guest's home court.
Obama's AIPAC speech is the bill the president is submitting to Netanyahu for the dinners that the Israeli prime minister thought he had gotten for free. The time has come to pay for American opposition to the Goldstone commission report on the Israeli incursion in Gaza and the veto of the UN Security Council's condemnation of construction in West Bank settlements. Obama denied Netanyahu the opportunity to exercise a veto on the terms for negotiations with the Palestinians. The U.S. president said that negotiations could not be conducted with Hamas as long as the organization does not recognize Israel's right to exist, refuses to accept existing international obligations and engages in terrorism. The Palestinian party to the negotiations was and remains the Palestine Liberation Organization and not Hamas.
Obama also rejected Netanyahu's demand that negotiations begin based on the principle of Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The president was careful to speak about both parties' right to self-determination. Period.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used to liken Israel's participation in negotiations on the future of the territories to cattle being led through the corral to the slaughterhouse. When Netanyahu returns home, he will have to decide once and for all if he is ready to lose the support of an American president who yesterday went into the lion's den or enter the corral of negotiations that in the end, and perhaps even from the beginning, will threaten him with political slaughter. Netanyahu's choice not to attend yesterday's convention session may indicate which direction he will choose.
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