Monday morning President Obama spoke at AIPAC. I attended and will blog a few points as well as share my impressions.
First: Obama received a standing ovation walking into the enormous hall at the Washington Convention Center, which was festooned in red, white and blue. He received healthy applause throughout most of his speech. Contrary to other published reports, only at one point”“when he reiterated his plan to base an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal on the 1967 borders”“did I hear one solitary individual boo. On the whole, the President was received with warmth and cordiality by the nearly 10,000 delegates, students and media in attendance.
He delivered the requisite sentiments regarding the solidity of the U.S./Israel bond. Notably, however, he repeated his statement that under his plan Israel would return to the its pre-1967 borders “with mutually agreed swaps.” Because I was working with pen and paper and not with my computer, I’ll rely here on the Wall Street Journal’s transcription of the point in his speech (see bold text below) when he reiterated this idea:
There was nothing particularly original in my proposal; this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations …
I said that the United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps – (applause) – so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat. (Applause.) Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security. (Applause.) And a full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign and non-militarized state. (Applause.) And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated. (Applause.)
Now, that is what I said. And it was my reference to the 1967 lines – with mutually agreed swaps – that received the lion’s share of the attention, including just now. And since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” means.
By definition, it means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. (Applause.) That’s what mutually agreed-upon swaps means. It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years. (Applause.) It allows the parties themselves to take account of those changes, including the new demographic realities on the ground, and the needs of both sides. The ultimate goal is two states for two people: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people – (applause) – and the State of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people – each state in joined self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace. (Applause.)
If there is a controversy, then, it’s not based in substance. What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately.
A few thoughts: I agree with Obama that what he said on Thursday was not so different from what other U.S. Presidents have likely said to Israel in private and that many have pressed Israel for for many years. In the vision of peace put forward, Israel would have to return to the size it was before 1967. The problem with that, to my mind, is not that Israel would be smaller. After all, what he is suggesting is an Israel the size that Israel was at the time of partition, in 1948, when the U.N. carved British mandate Palestine in two. Remember: Israelis accepted that arrangement, and five Arab armies – unwilling to share the land with Jews in a secure Jewish state – attacked the next day.
I believe most Israelis would be fine with what Obama proposes that if it truly were to mean an end to all hostilities. What concerns me and I believe most Israelis and their supporters is the likely reality that, given the state of Palestinian society and the uncertain landscape of the Arab world now, what such a deal – especially rushed for the sake of Obama’s legacy – would mean would be a hastily conceived state, filled with people who have been radicalized by decades of propaganda and war (the latter fomented by their own leaders) and no closer in their hearts to truly accepting Israel’s right to exist, now empowered with more land, more infrastructure, and less Israeli intelligence access. In short, look at what has happened in Gaza. If recent history is any indicator, radical forces will take over. This scenario seems more likely given that Fatah has now formed a unity government with Hamas. Although it should be noted that Obama did use the word “demilitarized” when describing this potential Palestinian state. Still, the signs just don’t look good.
The other problem with Obama having stated up front that Israel would need to return to its pre-1967 borders is it places Israel at a strategic disadvantage. In any negotiation, it is unwise to offer too much up front. That perspective (see in bold below) has been articulated by Karl Rove, commenting on FOX News in advance of Monday morning’s speech.
The president is going to give a speech tomorrow on Saturday in front of AIPAC, the big Jewish lobbying group. But, you know, I think the damage has been done by the reality of the president’s position which is, I mean, look, he has now put himself in the place where he has said to the Palestinians, think about this, the number one thing you want return to the ’67 borders, I the American president am going to tell you that I’m telling the Israelis you better do that. Why would the Palestinians wanted to negotiate in good faith? They got the president to negotiate for them. And he’s already come out on their side. This is the kind of thing that paradoxically causes there to be less opportunity for real solution rather than more.
The President made a clear commitment to standing up for Israel in diplomatic and international forums:
No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state. And the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the United Nations or in any international forum. (Applause.) Israel’s legitimacy is not a matter for debate. That is my commitment; that is my pledge to all of you. (Applause.)
He also referenced his administration’s condemnation of the Goldstone Report and his decision to not participate in “Durban II” – the UN Israel-bashing fest that masquerades as an anti-racism forum. Both were solid decisions the President got right. My take is, an academic and a thinker at heart, an idealist with a pragmatic streak and great ambition, in these diplomatic situations Obama makes the right calls and does the right thing. But he does not appear to fully get the reality of Israel’s situation. He presses Israel to give ground, not fully understanding that the risks he is asking Israel to take in a profoundly uncertain moment in time could be existential. One positive note: at one point in his speech, he seemed to acknowledge Israel’s right to handle its own problems in its own way:
Ultimately, it is the right and the responsibility of the Israeli government to make the hard choices that are necessary to protect a Jewish and democratic state for which so many generations have sacrificed. (Applause.)
Even though I was in the press risers, I applauded on that line. Let us hope that, if re-elected, the pragmatism Obama brought to bear in handling bin Laden and Guantanamo he brings to bear in respecting Israel’s right to make its own determinations regarding security.