For Now, AIPAC Can Afford to Ignore Obama

Israel: Change You Can't Believe In

Naturally, when President Obama spoke at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), he offered a predictable avalanche of rhetorical love for Israel (“friends,” “unbreakable bonds,” “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security – and that is only one paragraph). Yet, after wading through the love notes, it is clear that Obama was not simply sticking to the AIPAC script. He was warning the American Jewish community that the United States will not and cannot protect Israel’s unwillingness to make peace in the future. Unfortunately, Obama’s speech and its dire warnings will not make much of a difference.

In addition to mentioning the oft-repeated demographic statistics concerning the ratio of Palestinians to Israelis west of the Jordan river and the reminder that technology has undermined the perpetuation of state-sponsored injustice, Obama spoke coyly about the shifting global political trends and the consequences for the interests of Israel (and, off-topic for an American President at AIPAC, America as well). Money quote:

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.

And those are the facts.  I firmly believe, and I repeated on Thursday, that peace cannot be imposed on the parties to the conflict.  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.)

By ending perhaps his most important point by recycling stale and overused professions to assuage the artificially nurtured fears of the AIPAC community, Obama was able to garner applause for the most daring statement he has made on the issue (yes, more daring than the 1967 borders fiasco). Obama told AIPAC that the future is bleak for an Israel that refuses to make peace with the Palestinians. In a changing world in which the United States is the only country stubbornly propping up Israeli intransigence, the relative decrease of American political importance that accompanies the rise of developing countries in Asia, South and Latin America and elsewhere – states that uniformly reject the Israeli-American line – will result in a decreased capacity for the United States to diplomatically shield Israel from the consequences of its actions and choices. In other words, Israel must use the current political climate (see: unconditional American support for anything and everything that can be superficially defended using “existential threat” or “Israeli security”) to make a permanent settlement that will suit the Israeli people.

If a settlement is not reached soon, political changes might force Israel to accept a fair deal with the Palestinians (yikes!).

Unlike the 1967 borders comment, this type of straight-forward warning is new for an American president. As far as the rhetoric goes, this AIPAC speech is spectacularly significant. Obama did a wondrous job (here I agree with M.J. Rosenberg) saying what he wanted to say while still coming off as a staunch supporter of Israel (although I am not sure that the President was angry – just realistic). However, the gap between American rhetoric and actions is vast and Obama’s warnings are undoubtedly going to play second fiddle to the necessary re-election bid professions of love for Israel that earned applause from die-hard Israel-firsters in the AIPAC audience. As such, one cannot but agree with Issandr El Amrani: that the lobby is imperiling Israel’s future matters little to people who focus on the present:

I’m less excited about this because I think in their enthusiasm that Obama is making it clear to the Lobby that they are imperiling Israel’s future (and America’s ability to guarantee it) they oversee the fact that the Lobby is winning the tactical fight — even if it may be at the cost of longer-term strategy. Netanyahu will once again get away with running circles around an American president. People might be growing increasingly bitter about this, but American politics is structured in such a way that it resets frequently. A new PM in Israel or a new president in the White House and we might be back, for all intents and purposes, to zero while we wait for the long game of delegitimizing AIPAC and the lobby more generally.

While it is easy to get goosebumps from Obama’s speeches, I was immediately excited by the novelty (and daring) of this particular AIPAC talk. Yet – and this happens often – the cynic in me found a way to win the battle for my final reactions. Although some find Netanyahu to be relegating himself to the dustbin of oblivion with poorly chosen battles and although Obama finally said something meaningful and daring (and true) about Israel, this conflict is not about individuals, personal feuds or hard-hitting speeches. Facing bipartisan opposition to the path to peace (some of it highly racist) in the US and an increasingly racist and extremist populace in Israel, Obama alone cannot convince Israel to make peace.

Thus, while Obama’s speech marked an important deviation from previous speeches on the topic, it will do little to convince Israel’s supporters – to borrow Walt’s description of Israel’s choices – to choose the path of ensuring “Israel acceptance in the region” and preserving “the Zionist dream” rather than the stubborn push towards “endless conflict” and “delegitimization.”

Photo From FP

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