Mission impossible: Keeping Israel happy

Outcry from Zionists over Obama’s Middle East speech leaves little hope for peace with Palestinians.

Obama speech
Many ‘Israel-first’ Jewish activists gathered in faux outrage to denounce Obama’s Middle East speech – though he said little that should have upset them [GALLO/GETTY]

There was absolutely nothing about President Barack Obama’s Middle East speech to get excited about. And even less in his statement following Friday’s meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The president did not even attempt to set out an action plan; he offered broad principles, ones that have been offered before by five previous presidents.

He delivered the speech in an effort to get the jump on Netanyahu, in town to address Congress and AIPAC. Bibi’s goal is to mobilise his followers against any US efforts to promote an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Netanyahu, who grew up in the United States, is a de facto Republican and, as in 1998 when President Clinton was in office, he wants to strengthen the GOP vis-a-vis the Democrats.

Delivering the speech was probably a mistake. But Obama felt that he had to deliver it.

Jewish support and appeasement

For obvious national security reasons, the United States cannot afford to have a new generation of Arab democrats in nations as significant as Egypt hating us because they view the US as being in Israel’s pocket. Obama thought a strong rhetorical endorsement of peace would help neutralise Netanyahu’s demagoguery and defuse opposition to both the US and Israel in the Muslim world. Meanwhile, he thought some strong pro-Israel language would please Netanyahu’s followers.

In the end, it didn’t turn out that way. As the Wall Street Journal reported in an article titled “Jewish Donors Warn Obama on Israel,” a tiny (but incredibly well-heeled) group of donors told Obama in advance that any deviation from the line laid down by Netanyahu would cost Obama in campaign contributions. The article quotes a bunch of fat cats, unknown to most Jewish Americans, who are essentially threatening Obama.

It’s crazy. In 2008, 78 per cent of Jews voted for Obama. According to the definitive American Jewish Committee poll, Israel ranks seventh on the list of issues on which Jews cast their votes, with just three per cent citing it as their top concern. Fifty-four per cent mentioned the economy, and many more cited health care, energy and a host of other issues.

But the self-appointed representatives of the Jewish community tell the White House that our number one concern is Israel. And, for the AIPAC-directed donors, it probably is.

And that is why President Obama delivered a speech on Thursday that was utterly innocuous. There was nothing in it that has not been said before by a host of previous presidents. Virtually all his empathy was directed at Israel, while he offered a little sympathy, and nothing else, to the Palestinians. He did what he thought he had to do: appease AIPAC and Netanyahu while pleasing Arab democrats, too.

But he failed. Arabs saw the speech as a bunch of empty words. And the Israel-firsters went ballistic. Why? Because of one paragraph.

The president said:

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. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognised borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

Suddenly all hell broke loose. But not immediately. Initially, the right-wing of the “pro-Israel” claque praised Obama for not saying anything that challenged Netanyahu. But then Netanyahu said that he was outraged by the reference to the 1967 lines.

Addressing borders

The robotic Israel-firsters switched their line as quickly as Red 1930’s folk singers changed their lyrics when Moscow complained of deviation (“Stop bashing Nazi Germany; we just signed a pact with it”).

This is beyond ridiculous. Obama did not say that Israel would have to go back to the 1967 borders; he said that the “borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines…”

That means that Israelis and Palestinians would sit down with a map that dated back to 1967 and decide what would be Israel and what would be Palestine. What other “lines” could a deal be based on? The border between China and Russia?

As far back as the 1967 United Nations Resolution 242, which Israel signed, it has been the stated policy of the entire world (including Israel) that Israel would return to the ’67 borders, with alterations made, as necessary, to guard Israel’s security. Every US president has said that, and every Israeli government has accepted it. Even AIPAC supports the “two-state solution”, which means a Palestinian state in the territories captured by Israel in 1967.

So what are these people up to when they suddenly decide to descend into faux rage when Obama says what they have been saying all along?

The answer is simple. The Israel-first crowd has decided on two things: (1) they do not want Israeli-Palestinian peace, period. They want Israel to keep all the land. And (2) they want to see President Obama defeated in the next election, hoping against hope that they can drive the Obama Jewish vote, and especially campaign contributions, way below 2008 levels. They don’t trust him. They suspect (hopefully rightly) that in his heart he does not believe the status quo nonsense Dennis Ross is feeding him.

Obama is mistaken

Obama’s mistake is to think he can appease these people by going to AIPAC (as he did on Sunday night) or to Israel (as he probably will this summer) and trying to explain himself. Unless he is prepared to tell AIPAC and right-wing Israelis that he supports both settlements and the permanent disenfranchisement of Palestinians, he will not win over these people. They are not potential friends, not of him or of US interests. Or, frankly, of Israel’s – they seem to prefer the West Bank over Israel itself.

Instead, he should mobilise Americans who support Israel, the two-state solution and territorial compromise, non-Jews and Jews, like those of J Street, alike. He should reach out to Palestinians who are prepared to live in peace with Israel – including Hamas, if it will permanently end violence against Israel. And he should support moderate Israelis – still a sizeable percentage of the population – who hate the occupation and are desperate to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

Trying to appease Netanyahu and AIPAC empowers the right and cuts moderates off at the knees. It’s time for Obama to treat these people as what they are: enemies of everything he aspires to do and be. Why would the president think he can possibly find friends on the right? He can’t.

MJ Rosenberg is a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Media Matters Action Network. The above article first appeared in Foreign Policy Matters, a part of the Media Matters Action Network.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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