Many commentators expected little from Barack Obama’s performance at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He has to straddle parallel universes: the real one, in which most countries recognise Israel as tantamount to an international scofflaw, and the American domestic political universe in which Israel is always right. AIPAC’s conference is a mind-numbing experience. “My country right or wrong” is a rightly derided principle. But, at AIPAC, 10,000 people are assembled dedicated to the proposition that someone else’s country should be supported, right or wrong, even if it flouts every principle they support at home – and even if its civil laws on marriage and conversion deny the branches of Judaism to which most practicing American Jews adhere.
American Jews, true to their liberal roots, voted for Obama in higher proportions than any other ethnic group – even as a raucous minority of the community questioned his citizenship and Christianity. That minority is disproportionately represented in the counsels of AIPAC and many of the “official” organisations and tends to Republican, Likud hawkishness. But they tend to think in slogans and catchphrases, without comparing them to reality. They have been helped to remain in their parallel universe because various presidents and secretaries of state (with the notable exception of James Baker) have pandered for decades to AIPAC – and no one notices.
The media attention given to Obama’s address is significant since, for the first time in 20 years, there is a visible crack showing between the White House and AIPAC. Obama is being critical against the background of an American Jewish community that is split more than ever before, and certainly more so than the “official” spokesmen and organisations reveal. While admitting there are problems with a unity Palestinian government – “We will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace: recognising Israel’s right to exist, rejecting violence, and adhering to all existing agreements” – he did not exclude negotiations, but in effect put conditions, which Hamas has, in reality, already gone a long way to meet and is on the way to go further.
One hopes he realises that the key phrases he used, such as the need to accept Israel’s “right to exist”, were introduced by Israeli leaders precisely because they were unacceptable to Palestinians. He might even have noticed how quickly Israel switched from refusing to negotiate because the Palestinian Authority was divided, to refusing because it is united.
In the Levantine blame game, the purpose of negotiations is not to reach a solution but to blame the other side for failure. But there is always a way to wiggle – a phrase that would irk some Israelis would be for the Palestinians to recognise Israel’s “right to exist under United Nations decisions”.
While in the real world, Obama’s insistence on the 1967 boundaries as a basis for negotiation for land swaps has been generally accepted, Palestinians irate at this admitted denial of the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force”, may have missed his endorsement of the Palestinian people’s “right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state”. Presumably this implies that, in return for giving up some of the settled area, the Palestinian state will have a land bridge between Gaza and the West Bank. One can see why the President might not have chosen to spell that out for AIPAC.
While Obama stated a fact: “No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state”, he did not state a principle. He said: “The United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the UN or in any international forum. Because Israel’s legitimacy is not a matter for debate.” He did not say that the US would veto a UN acceptance of Palestine as a member state.
Indeed, he challenged the sloganeers with reality. “The number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian territories. This will make it harder and harder – without a peace deal – to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state.”
Second, he pointed to how atavistic the old obsession with territory as security is, since “technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself in the absence of a genuine peace”. Finally, he pointed to the changes in Israel’s neighbours, so peace can no longer be bought with few local kleptocrats: “Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained.”
The US and Israel have to show ordinary Arab citizens that they are serious about peace. Obama cannot regret the consequences to Palestinians of occupation while carrying on passing the ammunition to the occupiers. It is unlikely that Benjamin Netanyahu will voluntarily relinquish the not so secret Likud desire for an Arab-free state all the way to the Jordan. Obama has, perhaps deliberately and adroitly, manoeuvred the Israeli Prime Minister into insulting the President of the US. He now has to follow this up and show that there are consequences for Israel.
Obama baulked at his best opportunity, which was the UN resolution on the settlements. He should stop equivocating and come out plainly with a declaration that if Netanyahu continues to refuse to come to terms with reality in the region, then he cannot take a US veto against a Palestinian state for granted. If he really wants to play for high stakes, he could suggest that embattled US taxpayers will no longer continue to pay for free Israeli healthcare and higher education when they cannot afford these for themselves. It would almost be worth it just to watch the Tea Partiers squirm and it would show Israeli voters that there are consequences from their choices.