WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama seemed to mollify some of his critics with his words at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference on Sunday, in which he more fully explained his vision for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking after he sparked controversy on the subject last week.
Obama ignited an outpouring of criticism from pro-Israel advocates and a stern rebuke from Israel when he spoke about using the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps as the basis for a Palestinian state in a landmark speech on Thursday.
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But in Sunday’s speech he clarified that those lines would have to be adjusted to take into account new demographic realities, understood to be the main settlement blocs, and addressed Israel’s security concerns and objections to dealing with Hamas.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who triggered a mini crisis with the US on Thursday night by issuing a harsh reaction to Obama’s speech that morning, reacted much more positively to Obama’s AIPAC address.
A statement put out by the Prime Minister’s Office said that Netanyahu “expressed his appreciation” for Obama’s comments at AIPAC.
“I am a partner with the president’s desire to advance peace, and I appreciate his efforts in the past and the present to achieve this goal. I am determined together with President Obama to find ways to renew peace negotiations.
Peace is a vital interest for all of us,” the prime minister said in a statement.
According to Israeli officials, the matters that Obama clarified during his speech – on the 1967 lines and his firm opposition to a Fatah reconciliation with an unreformed Hamas – were discussed at Friday’s meeting between the two leaders.
The officials said that Netanyahu, who listened to Obama’s speech with his top advisers in Blair House, the official guest residence of the White House, was also pleased by the president’s forceful language against the Palestinians’ aim to get recognition of statehood at the UN in September.
Netanyahu and Obama had held a meeting on Friday in which their stark differences on policy were made clear in a tense exchange in front of the press. Following the meeting, however, Netanyahu had indicated that he left more encouraged than when he went in. The officials on Sunday said that his positive reaction was due to the clarifications Obama then articulated on Sunday.
Aides to Netanyahu in any case downplayed the depth of the disagreement between Netanyahu and Obama, saying that it had been “blown way out of proportion.” At the same time, the officials acknowledged that there were “differences of opinion” on a number of issues.
Still, despite those differences, most of the 10,000 attendees at the AIPAC conference seemed pleased by what they heard. Despite some concerns about how Obama would be received, and a reminder from AIPAC President Lee Rosenberg to be respectful of all speakers just minutes before the president took the podium, he received a standing ovation upon his arrival and departure and at several points during his speech.
“AIPAC appreciates President Obama’s speech today at our annual policy conference in which he reaffirmed the importance of the US-Israel relationship and the shared values that define both nations,” said AIPAC spokesman Ari Goldberg, particularly highlighting his statements that “the US does not expect Israel to withdraw to the boundaries that existed between Israel and Jordan in 1967 before the Six Day War,” and for his “explicit condemnation of Hamas as a terrorist organization and his recognition that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a group that denies its fundamental right to exist.”
AIPAC officials speaking anonymously said they were relieved by what they heard, and that they felt it went a long way toward removing the tensions between the two countries following the Thursday speech.
“It was a definite effort that the president made to be responsive to the prime minister’s criticisms,” said one US Jewish leader who asked that he not be named.
That effort was largely successful even in the eyes of some organizations that take a hard line in support of Israel, including StandWith- Us.
“The international Stand- WithUs delegation at AIPAC was relieved by many of President Obama’s key points,” the group said in a statement.
“We appreciated President Obama showing how America has met its commitments to Israel ‘in words and deeds.’ Now Palestinians and Arab leaders must show the same commitment to peace in both their words and their deeds.”
At the same time, Obama appeared to hew closely enough to Thursday’s text to hold onto the support of more progressive elements of the Jewish community.
“The president did not back off from the vision for Israeli- Palestinian peace that he began to lay out last Thursday,” said Americans for Peace Now President and CEO Debra DeLee. “He offered a reasonable, realistic approach, which – as the president indicated – has been the template of Israeli- Palestinian negotiations for more than a decade, and is broadly accepted as the basis for future peace. The president correctly criticized those who attempted to discredit his commitment to Israel and to peace by misrepresenting his vision of the future borders between Israel and Palestine.”
And prominent blogger M.J. Rosenberg, who has been vocally critical of AIPAC in the past, expressed surprise at the “masterful job” Obama did before the pro-Israel lobby.
“I didn’t expect anything good to come out of Obama’s AIPAC speech. I was wrong,” he wrote on his Huffington Post blog. “The president strongly endorsed ‘two states for two peoples’ and explained to a skeptical crowd that the status quo is Israel’s worst enemy.”
Yet there were members of the pro-Israel community who left dissatisfied by what they heard.
“Obama is demanding an Israeli concession on borders without also asking the Palestinians for something, such as recognition of Israel as a Jewish state or acknowledgement that there will be no ‘right of return’ to Israel. He did not even criticize Abbas for inviting Hamas into the PA,” charged Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel.
“For two years, Obama has maintained a get-tough approach to Israel – but not to the Palestinians. His two speeches this week demonstrate that he intends to continue his policy of double standards,” Pollak continued.
“This not only hurts the USIsrael relationship, it undermines the hope for peace.”
Hamas on Sunday rejected Obama’s call to recognize Israel and accused him of being biased in favor of Israel.
In response to Obama’s speech before AIPAC, Hamas also urged the Palestinian Authority to reconsider its policies toward the Middle East peace process, saying there was no point in relying on the US as an honest broker.
The PA, in contrast, had not responded by late Sunday to Obama’s AIPAC address.
Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said that in light of Obama’s new speech, the PA should reconsider its position toward the peace process and increase efforts to achieve national unity.
“Obama’s speech is a disaster to all those who have been betting on US policies and positions,” Radwan said. “We reject such statements which prove that the Americans are completely biased in favor of occupation at the expense of Palestinian rights.”
The Hamas spokesman strongly condemned the Obama administration for “supporting the security of the Zionists and ignoring Palestinian rights.” Radwan said that it has become obvious now that the Obama administration is not talking about the 1967 lines or a Palestinian state. “What they are doing now is deception,” he said in reference to Obama’s speech at the AIPAC conference.
Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.