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While Endorsing Israel-Palestine and U.S.-Iran Talks, Obama Speech Finds Common Ground With AIPAC

This news just in. Barack Obama’s prepared remarks for the Chicago AIPAC meeting which were delivered earlier today. I want to be as nuanced as I can be in my critique because, while parts of this speech disappointed me, there were some quite hopeful portions which rose above the standard pro-Israel boilerplate that one hears, for example, from a candidate like Hillary Clinton (see her remarks to AIPAC). I still believe that Obama can be a more independent presidential candidate regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the usual suspects.

The Good: Obama, contrary to AIPAC’s standard line, hewed closely to his 60 Minutes theme–that negotiations with Iran and diplomatic engagement are his highest priority. While it is true that he pointedly acknowledged the military option as a viable one (contrary to my own conviction), it was clearly not at the top of his own agenda. As with much of the rhetoric of this speech, it is clear to me it was inserted in order to establish his bona fides with the relatively hardline pro-Israel crowd he faced.

UPDATE: It took my fellow Israel peace activist, M.J. Rosenberg to point out the hopefulness of what he calls the “money quote,” which I missed on my first reading:

Yitzhak Rabin had the vision to reach out to longtime enemies. Ariel Sharon had the determination to lead Israel out of Gaza. These were difficult, painful decisions that went to the heart of Israel’s identity as a nation.

Many Israelis I talked to during my visit last year told me that they were prepared to make sacrifices to give their children a chance to know peace. These were people of courage who wanted a better life. And I know these are difficult times and it can be easy to lose hope. But we owe it to our sons and daughters, our mothers and fathers, and to all those who have fallen, to keep searching for peace and security — even though it can seem distant. This search is in the best interests of Israel. It is in the best interests of the United States. It is in the best interests of all of us.

We can and we should help Israelis and Palestinians both fulfill their national goals: two states living side by side in peace and security. Both the Israeli and Palestinian people have suffered from the failure to achieve this goal. The United States should leave no stone unturned in working to make that goal a reality.

If this was the entire speech, I would’ve been quite pleased. But unfortunately, it wasn’t.

The Bad: he did not embrace negotiations with Syria as he had in the 60 Minutes interview. Syria appeared in the speech along with Hezbollah as the looming bad guys, up to mischief and totally no-goodniks. An unfortunate gross oversimplification of current political reality.

There was a continued insistence on the bankrupt three conditions (recognition, renunciation of violence, endorsement of prior agreements) without which the west will refuse to recognize any Hamas government. The three conditions have been lambasted even by a number of Israeli political and military analysts including Yossi Alpher. Besides which, France has already expressed its willingness to resume aid to the PA and the rest of the EU seems to be exploring a political means to get beyond the three conditions.

There was standard AIPAC boilerplate galore including suspicion of the Mecca accords along with this unfortunate statement:

We should all be concerned about the agreement negotiated among Palestinians in Mecca last month. The reports of this agreement suggest that Hamas [and] Fatah…would sit in a government together, under a Hamas Prime Minister, without any recognition of Israel, without a renunciation of violence, and with only an ambiguous promise to “respect” previous agreements.

This should concern us all because it suggests that Mahmoud Abbas, who is a Palestinian leader I believe is committed to peace, felt forced to compromise with Hamas. However, if we are serious about the Quartet’s conditions, we must tell the Palestinians this is not good enough.

What this leaves out is that Hamas too, as Yossi Alpher writes, was forced to make compromises including a never heard before commitment to “respect” previous PLO negotiated agreements with Israel; and sharing power with Fatah. Obama here entirely ignores the possibility that Mecca was actually a hopeful development that might augur continued modification of Hamas positions vis a vis Israel. This is how the Europeans view it. The only parties seeing this as Obama does are Olmert’s government, AIPAC and Bush. Not the best political company in my opinion.

Obama returns to a standard Condi Sunni-alliance-against-Iran meme in this passage:

We must also persuade other nations such as Saudi Arabia to recognize common interests with Israel in dealing with Iran. We should stress to the Egyptians that they help the Iranians and do themselves no favors by failing to adequately prevent the smuggling of weapons and cash by Iran into Gaza.

What this fails to recognize is that our currency is so debased among those very Sunni nations that Saudi Arabia, for one, has clearly embarked on its own set of strategic initiatives regarding Iran and the Palestinian issue. The talks is has announced with the Iranian president and the Mecca accords are perfect examples of signals that Saudi Arabia no longer is looking to us for anything in terms of dealing with its regional issues.

The only way we can regain credibility in the eyes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Jordan is by being a truly honest broker in resolving the I-P conflict. As long as we continue to be Israel’s cheerleader or willing co-conspirator, we have very little to offer. There is little recognition of this fact in this statement from Sen. Obama.

And the Ugly:

In the end, we also know that we should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests. No Israeli Prime Minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States.

This again is red meat thrown to the AIPACers. And it is truly an unfortunate statement. Not because the U.S. can or should dictate conditions to Israel or drag a PM to the negotiating table. But it is unfortunate because there is no recognition in it that our policy over the last six years has been precisely the opposite. It has been to tacitly encourage Israel to refuse to negotiate seriously and to maintain the oppressive military strangulation of Gaza. There is no recognition in this statement that Israel and the Palestinians have an equal responsibility to make this process work and that blame is not one-sided.

UPDATE: William Burns, in a comment at TPMCafe, correctly notes Obama’s sly critical reference to Condi Rice’s torpedo of an Israeli request to open negotiations with Syria (“No Israeli Prime Minister should ever feel…blocked from the negotiating table by the United States”). I have to give Obama points on this phrase which I’d entirely glossed over on a first reading. Essentially, he is saying that as president he would’ve given Israel a green light to negotiate with Syria. More power to him!

This passage too seemed disconnected from Mideast reality:

The Israeli people, and Prime Minister Olmert, have made clear that they are more than willing to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will result in two states living side by side in peace and security. But the Israelis must trust that they have a true Palestinian partner for peace. That is why we must strengthen the hands of Palestinian moderates who seek peace and that is why we must maintain the isolation of Hamas and other extremists who are committed to Israel’s destruction.

The Israeli people surely ARE “willing to negotiate an end to the I-P conflict.” But IS Olmert willing? By what standard can we say that he is? That he’s mouthed words to that effect? No, that won’t cut it. He’s DONE nothing to bring about a serious round of negotiation to end the conflict. Even the last meeting with Condi Rice was almost a charade as Olmert refused to negotiate anything substantive. So let’s not fool ourselves that the only problem here is that the Israelis don’t “have a true Palestinian partner for peace.” They certainly do have a partner in Mahmoud Abbas. If they choose not to dance with him that’s not his fault, but rather their own.

As I wrote above, this post is a critique by someone who cares about the Obama campaign and who continues to believe that it can chart a more independent view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I would note that before joining the Obama campaign, Dan Shapiro served as Jewish outreach coordinator for Senator Bill Nelson. Nelson was one of the first U.S. senators to visit Bashar Assad in Syria and take home the message that Syria wants peace and negotiation with Israel. I don’t know what role, if any, Shapiro played on that trip. But I admired the guts it took for Nelson to buck our country’s declared policy of isolating Syria. I’m hoping that Obama can give an even better speech than this one somewhere down the line during the campaign.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Dieter March 3, 2007, 1:30 PM

    As a member of Alanon I know that an enabler is a person who tries to help an alcoholic to stop drinking but by his actions only causes more drinking and more misery. It is time that we call congresspersons such as Senator Obama who have voted money for the war in Iraq enablers of that war regardless of whether they support or oppose that war. In that respect Obama is not different from that other enabler Hillary Clinton.

  • Richard Silverstein March 3, 2007, 1:48 PM

    Unlike you, I don’t expect perfection in politicians. If you do, it’s a recipe for constant disappointment. I expect only the best that can be expected under any particular set of circumstances. There will come a time, and it will come soon, when Dems will start calling for a cutoff of funds. It happened during Vietnam. It happened during El Salvador. It will happen regarding Iraq. Your problem is you what what you want when you want it. I want it too. We shouldn’t have gotten into that mess to begin with let alone stayed as long as we have. I would vote against funding right now if I could. But then again I’m not a U.S. senator.

    So let’s keep the pressure on them to get it right & eventually they will.

  • ellen March 4, 2007, 7:01 AM

    Ali Abunimah on Obama:

    “How Obama learned to love Israel”

  • AJ March 4, 2007, 7:08 AM

    Interesting analysis. Overall I am left with the impression of an intentionally muddled speech aimed at winning a baseline acceptance from AIPAC without making any meaningful or newworthy statements either way. The most interesting contrast between the candidates on the Democratic side may not be their nuances in negotiating positions, but the level of interest they and committment they show to the issue. In that sense Richardson and Clinton seem to be ahead of Obama and Edwards based mostly on their past involvement.

  • Richard Silverstein March 4, 2007, 4:42 PM

    The most interesting contrast between the candidates on the Democratic side may not be their nuances in negotiating positions, but the level of interest they and committment they show to the issue. In that sense Richardson and Clinton seem to be ahead of Obama and Edwards based mostly on their past involvement.

    Are you saying that Hillary Clinton’s “commitment” to a hardline pro-Israel position fully endorsed by AIPAC makes her a more impressive candidate than Obama? If so, I don’t buy it in any way. She has a longer track record on Mideast issues merely because she’s been on the national political scene longer than Obama. That doesn’t mean she brings anything to the table that he wouldn’t–except her hardline views.

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