Obama’s speech, AIPAC’s problem

 President Barack Obama’s “Cairo II” speech yesterday may have complicated life for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose annual policy conference he will keynote on Sunday.

In his speech at the State Department, Obama advocated an Israeli-Palestinian agreement with borders “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

That reflects what has been implicit in U.S. policy for a long time, but the language about the 1967 borders is new – and opponents of Palestinian statehood and of active U.S. involvement in pushing both sides to the table are predictably incensed.

The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has called on AIPAC to rescind its invitation to Obama – like that’s going to happen – because of his speech “promoting and supporting the establishment of a Hamas/Fatah/Iran terrorist state on the Auschwitz 1967 indefensible armistice lines.”

I’ll say this for ZOA: its leaders pack a lot of rhetorical bombs into a single sentence. (The Simon Wiesenthal Center, in a statement, used similar language).

The ZOA position reflects a real problem for AIPAC: how to control a faction in the convention hall that regards Obama’s speech as a virtual declaration of war against the kind of Jewish state they want.

Politico reported the other day that as before previous policy conferences, AIPAC sent out an email to delegates saying the group’s goal is to “have every speaker, honored guest, member of Congress, Senator, and administration official who joins us feel that we have done everything we can to extend our hand in friendship.” 

Even before the speech, there was great concern at AIPAC HQ that Obama would provoke some less- than-friendly responses. You can bet that concern has been redoubled since yesterday.

It seems to me that Obama speech didn’t really change anything, policy wise. Using that language – the 1967 borders – was undoubtedly meant as a strong signal to the Arab and Muslim world that Washington is still serious about pressing for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, and a signal to Netanyahu on the eve of his Washington visit.

But yesterday’s speech offered no clues about what the U.S. plan might be, which is why Jewish pro-peace process groups, while praising the speech, weren’t very thrilled by it because they suspect there isn’t one.

Still, it’s a problem for AIPAC – whose goal isn’t to support a particular ideological position in Israel (such as: no more land for peace) but to promote strong U.S.-Israel relations. You don’t do that by embarrassing a president who offers to keynote your conference.

It’s interesting that while ZOA went on a tear about the speech, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee – both pretty much icons of the pro-Israel center – mostly praised it.

The AJC focused on Obama’s comments about the recent Fatah-Hamas unity agreement:

“The president also stated clearly his concerns about the recent agreement between Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Abbas, and Hamas, which rules Gaza and has been designated by the U.S. and EU as a terrorist organization,” the group said in a statement. “The president challenged Palestinian leaders to provide ‘a credible answer’ to the question of ‘how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist.’”

ADL leaders called it a “compelling speech on the priorities for American policy in the Middle East” and said “We applaud his strong outlining of the principles which motivate that policy, including supporting the universal rights of free speech, equality and religious freedom, opposing the use of force and political repression, and promoting political and economic reforms.”

The group also praised Obama’s “clear articulation of the moral and strategic connections between America and Israel. We support the President’s vision of a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement with strong security provisions for Israel, and a non-militarized Palestinian state. We appreciate his direct rejection of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and his understanding that the Hamas-Fatah agreement poses major problems for Israel.”

Somehow I don’t that’s going to have much impact on those activists at the AIPAC conference on Sunday who see Obama’s words about 1967 borders as a frontal attack against their vision of Israel.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.