A ‘misrepresented’ Obama tries to set the record straight

Analysis: But even the US president’s improved formulations will still leave many Israelis feeling uneasy.

US President Barack Obama at AIPAC 311 (R) (photo credit: Jason Reed / Reuters)
US President Barack Obama at AIPAC 311 (R)
(photo credit: Jason Reed / Reuters)
President Barack Obama sounded somewhat aggrieved.
He was, he told 10,000 attentive delegates at AIPAC’s annual policy conference in Washington on Sunday morning, a “real friend” of Israel, with the track record to prove it.
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Precisely because he and his administration “understand the challenges Israel faces,” he had made military cooperation a priority, ensured Israel received America’s most advanced technologies, and boosted financing for the Iron Dome missile defense system. Precisely because of his concern for Israel’s security, he had imposed the toughest ever sanctions to try to thwart Iran’s nuclear program, shown “unshakeable opposition” to attempts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy, stood up for Israel against the Goldstone Report and made plain that the planned Palestinian unilateral UN route to statehood was unacceptable.
In his Middle East speech last Thursday, the president went on, the crowd warming to him by the sentence, he had spoken about Israel as a true friend had to speak – pushing for a return to direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, “because we cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace. The world is moving too fast. The extraordinary challenges facing Israel would only grow. Delay will undermine Israel’s security and the peace that the Israeli people deserve.”
And in order to woo the Palestinians, the Arab states and the international community – “for us to have leverage” as the president put it – “the basis for negotiations has to hold out the prospect of success.”
That was why, he explained, he had specified that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” Mutually agreed, he repeated.
Nothing was going to be imposed on Israel and, by definition, the notion of agreed swaps meant that Israel would not have to return to its vulnerable pre-’67 lines.
And yet his positions, he protested, had been misreported. He had been “misrepresented several times.”
“If there’s a controversy, then, it’s not based in substance,” he argued in his speech’s most defensive sentence. “What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately.”
Now he was here to set the record straight. Bolstered by a formulation that had echoes of president George W. Bush’s correspondence with prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, which Israel has wanted to believe constituted American endorsement of Israeli retention of major settlement blocs, this was the president publicly putting himself shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel. This was Israel’s key ally, helping Israel act in its own best interest, and gradually working to alleviate international, Arab and Palestinian frustration, hostility and intractability.
Along with that vague but Jerusalem-pleasing reference to “the new demographic realities on the ground,” Obama went helpfully further in several other key areas on Sunday than he had last Thursday at the State Department or last Friday with Binyamin Netanyahu by his side.
He all but ruled out negotiations with the Palestinian leadership so long as it included an unreformed Hamas. And, movingly, he recalled his visit to Jerusalem three years ago: “When I touched my hand against the Western Wall and placed my prayer between its ancient stones, I thought of all the centuries that the children of Israel had longed to return to their ancient homeland.”
Here were words that were so unfortunately left unsaid in Cairo two years ago and again last week, words that showed the president upholding the historic Jewish connection to the disputed sliver of sovereign, modern Israel.
The AIPAC crowd was strikingly appreciative, especially in light of the furious Netanyahu reaction to aspects of Thursday’s address. They gave him healthy applause from the start, stood at key points, cheered him loudly at the end. In a room of thousands, I heard only a single, brief “boo” when he said, “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”
As he left the hall, ahead of Netanyahu’s speech to this same audience on Monday, the president could afford to feel comfortable with a job well done. He has certainly made it hard for the prime minister, now, to assert that this administration is trying to coerce Israel into a withdrawal to “indefensible” lines.
And yet Obama’s evident sense of grievance will not seem entirely justified to many Israelis, and his address here on Sunday, though it included several more helpful formulations, will not have alleviated all causes for Israeli concern.
His speech included what many Israelis will regard as a problematic formulation that “there is 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, but in Latin America, in Europe, and in Asia. That impatience is growing, and is already manifesting itself in capitals around the world.”
Well, many Israelis will say in response to that presidential observation, the Palestinians are pursuing their interests at the UN General Assembly because, in that skewed forum, they will not be required to condition their bid for statehood on reconciliation with Israel.
And it is incumbent on the US to impress on the Palestinians the imperative for viable reconciliation, including on the critical refugee issue, where he has been dismayingly vague.
Obama’s speech lacked, as last Thursday’s speech lacked and Friday’s comments alongside Netanyahu lacked, a specific rejection of the notion of a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees. Yes, he told this pro-Israel audience that Israel is the Jewish homeland. But even here, he could not bring himself to unequivocally declare that the Palestinian refugee problem must be resolved independently of Israel. Why not? Because he fears it will alienate the Palestinians? Or because he doesn’t actually believe the Palestinian refugee problem must be resolved independently of Israel.
The first explanation is more charitable, of course. But if he fears that to make the clear-cut statement is to lose that “leverage” that will draw the Palestinians back to the peace table, then the approach will strike many Israelis and their supporters as wrong-headed. Telling Israel clearly what mutually agreed territory it will have to give up, while not telling the Palestinians clearly what maximalist positions they will have to compromise, is a recipe for deadlock, not progress.
What will have rung most implausibly to Netanyahu, however, were the president’s repeated assertions of friendly candor, his insistence that telling Israel necessary truths is what good friends have to do, and that he is emphatically one such unshakeable, dependable friend.
For this narrative does not sit easily with the emerging accounts of the frictions that preceded last Thursday’s landmark presidential address. We have been hearing about altered drafts, an early sense that the speech would not include a reference to the 1967 lines, subsequent changes, and a heated eleventh-hour exchange between Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during which Jerusalem pleaded in vain for key phrases to be excised. And then we heard the furious Netanyahu respond to the speech on Thursday night as he prepared to fly out here, and saw him, in a very public divergence of minds, lecturing the president and a watching world on Friday.
One wonders why the prime minister did not speak personally to the president about every last comma in the Israel-Palestine section of that speech, ahead of time. One wonders if they tried to talk this through, one-on-one on a secure line.
The destiny of Israeli-Palestinian relations is quite evidently a central presidential priority, and it’s the prime minister’s daily obsession. Isn’t talking openly to each other, before they go public, the kind of thing that real friends do?