Preview of Obama at AIPAC: 2008 Versus 2011

In the next several days, President Barack Obama will deliver two major addresses on the Middle East. The first, to take place on Thursday, will renew his effort to reach out to the Muslim world, in the wake of the Arab Spring and the death of Osama bin Laden. The second, on Sunday, will be delivered to pro-Israel activists at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, DC.

Obama at 2008 AIPAC Policy Conference

It is difficult to take any one of Obama’s presidential speeches seriously anymore, because he gives so many of them, and says so little of substance. In his rhetoric, Obama strives to be an interpreter, rather than a leader.

Yet these two speeches are important, because they will indicate how Obama will shape America’s response to two key campaigns: the Muslim Brotherhood’s campaign in Egypt’s September elections, and the Palestinian Authority’s campaign for unilateral statehood at the United Nations, also in September.

The Wall Street Journal reports today that the president will use his Thursday speech to offer additional U.S. aid to friendly Arab countries. It is also expected that both speeches will feature a new commitment to pressuring Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate a peace agreement.

That might seem untimely, given the recent resignation of special envoy George Mitchell, who was tasked with moving talks forward. It would also be unwise, given the ongoing formation of a Palestinian unity government that includes the terror group Hamas, which mourned bin Laden’s death.

Nevertheless, Obama is pushing ahead, perhaps with 2012 in mind, and perhaps hoping to upstage Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also scheduled to give two speeches–one to AIPAC and the other to a special joint session of Congress, at the invitation of the new Republican leadership of the House of Representatives. In fact, the week’s schedule is almost set up as a debate between the two men on Israel’s future.

The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot reported on Tuesday that it had obtained an early draft of Obama’s Thursday speech on the Arab Spring, and that he intended “to urge Israel to return to the 1967 lines while negating the Palestinian Authority’s planned unilateral bid for statehood in September.” The newspaper also reported that the president would call for Jerusalem to be divided as a capital of both Israel and the future Palestinian state.

Furious denials ensued. Yet the leaks mirror the trend of Obama administration policy from the beginning. Obama has repeatedly targeted Israel in an attempt to achieve his broader aims of reconciliation with the Arab and Muslim worlds, reneging on many of his commitments to pro-Israel voters. Indeed, it is useful to examine some of the major promises he made the last time he spoke to AIPAC, in the midst of the 2008 elections:

  • “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”

Obama’s promise was greeted with an enthusiastic ovation by the AIPAC delegates. But he began walking it back almost immediately, and throughout his administration he has strongly opposed construction in Jewish areas of East Jerusalem–an objection that would make no sense if he truly believed the city should be “undivided.” Obama is now expected to call for Jerusalem to be shared between Israel and a Palestinian state.

  • “We will also use all elements of American power to pressure Iran…That starts with aggressive, principled diplomacy without self-defeating preconditions…”

Obama has not even used “aggressive, principled diplomacy” against Iran. In June 2009, as pro-democracy protestors confronted the regime in the streets of Tehran, Obama refused to speak out. He delayed approving stronger sanctions against Iran, and allowed Iran to strengthen its influence in Turkey, Syria–and Afghanistan, too. Even European leaders grew frustrated with Obama’s diplomatic foot-dragging on Iran.

  • “Israel can also advance the cause of peace by…refrain[ing] from building new settlements — as it agreed to with the Bush administration at Annapolis.”

The Annapolis agreement did not specify that Israel would refrain from building new settlements–in fact, all understood that settlements would be part of negotiations towards a two-state solution. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have chosen to ignore real agreements between Israel and the Bush administration, such as the assurance given to Israel in 2004 that the U.S. would accept limited growth within existing settlements.

  • “[T]he bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable today, tomorrow and forever.”

Obama has tested that bond repeatedly–whether portraying Israeli construction in East Jerusalem as the obstacle to negotiations, declaring Israeli settlements “illegitimate” in spite of previous understandings, supporting UN institutions that do little but condemn Israel, snubbing Netanyahu at the White House, and implying in his Cairo speech that Palestinian suffering was comparable to Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.

It will be interesting to see how Obama will try to navigate the two messages–subtly yet unmistakably different–that he will broadcast in these two different speeches. It is likely that Obama will make opposition to Israeli settlements–whether existing or expanding–the key to harmonizing his addresses. If so, he will commit a grave error, reminding the Arab world of its time-worn distraction, at a moment when many Arabs have moved on.


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