Sunday, May 22, 2011

Obama Holds His Ground

President Obama's speech to AIPAC this morning was the push-back the pro-Israel center has been waiting to see since 2009.

The Expected: President Obama pushed four of his five major pro-Israel talking points (Iran, Hamas, UN recognition of Palestine, Israeli security) in this morning's speech. While Obama did not specifically mention Syria, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer did reference it in his remarks prior to the President's comments. Obama also did not mention settlements during his speech, though this is consistent with his speech from Thursday.

The Surprise: The President directly re-stated his comments on 1967 from Thursday's speech on the Arab uprisings. Obama added, "My position has been misrepresented...[borders based on the '67 lines] are a well known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation."

In saying that 'based on 1967' inherently means 'not exactly 1967,' Obama has provoked a direct confrontation with Prime Minister Netanyahu, accusing him (correctly) of misrepresenting the US position and of creating a "controversy...not based in substance." The speech sets up what is sure to be a fascinating response by the Prime Minister tomorrow evening.

Critically, Obama linked delegitimization of Israel to stalling on the peace process, noting that "the march to isolate Israel internationally...will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process." His comments reveal the internal frustration of the administration over what it perceives as Netanyahu's intransigence towards the peace process and picking fights over non-issues. As suggested last night, the way the Israeli center reacts to this point will be critical to Netanyahu's domestic political support. Either way, it is likely to resonate positively with other members of the G-8 this week in Europe.

The Take-Away: Obama's speech was well crafted and struck an excellent balance between praise for Israel, and criticism of Netanyahu. While at times the tension in the room was high, the speech's overall assessment of the audience was dead on. Any awkwardness was both expected and deliberate on the part of the administration. Ultimately, President Obama managed to leave the room with the support of those who supported him before he gave the speech.

Most importantly, and contrary to the assessment last night of this blog, President Obama held his ground. He never attacked Israeli policy directly, but rather made Netanyahu's comments the symbolic source of US-Israel disagreement. It appears the Obama administration may avoid the trap it fell into on settlements in 2009, in which Prime Minister Netanyahu spun criticism of his settlement policy into delegitimization of Israel's security needs as a whole. The willingness to challenge the Israeli government again, and with such force, is an unexpected and refreshing development.

PM Netanyahu is now in a difficult position between continuing to try and talk around the direct challenge of the President of the United States, or to drop the issue altogether. A third option would be to go for broke and challenge the two-state solution itself, which would be a 180 degree policy shift from the Bar Ilan speech Netanyahu gave in 2009. While the Prime Minister is not to be underestimated, he remains on the defensive.

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