Monday, May 23, 2011

Reviews Mixed Over Obama's AIPAC Address

Updated 11:45 p.m. EDT

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ratcheted down the rhetoric and delivered a speech tonight to AIPAC, highlighting the U.S.-Israeli relationship and praising President Obama as a friend of Israel.

"Israel is America's indispensable ally," Netanyahu told the powerful pro-Israel lobby.

He set the tone for his address by taking a moment at the start to recognize the deadly tragedy in Joplin, Mo., where at least 116 people were killed yesterday by a most or tornado.

Netanyahu then went on to praise Obama as a true friend of Israel.

In the only moment that harkened back to tense relations between Netanyahu and Obama came when the prime minister (who indicated he will have more to say when he addresses Congress tomorrow) repeated to the crowd in Washington what he told Obama on Friday in reaction to the U.S. leader's acknowledgment that peace talks begin with the pre-1967 borders as the starting point:

"Israel cannot return to the indefensible 1967 lines,” Netanyahu told thousands of supporters of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Netanyahu was booed and heckled along the way, but the demonstrators were escorted out to cheers from the crowd.

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So did President Obama placate concerns by the conservative wing of the Israeli lobby with the argument yesterday that he said nothing new when he stated out loud that the pre-1967 borders should be the starting point of the Middle East peace talks?

Some notable reaction:

Likud Knesset member Danny Danon slammed Obama's remarks as political, breathlessly calling into question Obama's knowledge of Israeli and Palestinian affairs.

"Obama must understand that Israel will not pay the price for his tuition as he gets caught up to speed on the essence of the conflict. Obama is zigzagging in accordance with whatever position will give him more votes while justifying his Nobel Prize. We must stand strong in order to ensure that this will not be on account of the state of Israel," Danon said, according to Haaretz.

Hamas rejected Obama's AIPAC speech as pandering to the Israeli lobby, according to the Palestinian newspaper, Al-Resalah.

Josh Block, senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and a former AIPAC spokesman, said in an email to Pajamas Media: “It [the speech] was a strong reaffirmation of the US-Israel relationship, and was an important and positive change from his remarks on Thursday. It reflected an important continuity of US policy going back to President Johnson.”

National Jewish Democratic Council President David Harris, who attended the AIPAC speech, said Obama included “a very helpful explanation of the 1967 parameters that some misunderstood and some purposefully distorted."

"This will dramatically help the president with going forward. I was deeply gratified to see the tremendously warm reception he got throughout the speech - it was more than a polite minimum the folks here were expected to do." Harris told Haaretz. "He got clearly genuine support throughout his address. It shows that even in this room in the heart of the pro-Israeli advocacy in the country there was a clear recognition of the fact that the status quo is not sustainable.”

Award-winning journalist Barry Lando, author of "Web of Deceit," writes at Huffington Post that Obama should have announced to AIPAC a real change in policy since Netanyahu has signaled he is not interested in talks aimed at Palestinian statehood. 

Lando writes Obama should have said to AIPAC: "We can no longer afford to confuse supporting the State of Israel with supporting the policies of the leaders who control the Israeli government at a particular time. The interests of the two are not necessarily the same. Particularly when, in my view -- and the view of many Israelis as well -- those policies undermine the long-term security of the Israel."

Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's senior political analyst, said: "[Obama] is saying absolutely nothing new ... He remains, I think, more or less, adamant that it has to be up to the Israelis and the Palestinians, which basically, de facto, means it's up to the Israelis to dictate what exactly their security requirements are for any contours of a Palestinian solution," Al Jazeera reported.

The ISRAI website has a summary here of related editorials in the Jewish press.

Tony Karon, blogging at Time, painted Netanyahu's stonewalling as a much larger problem than Obama's border statement, which has long been held as the de facto starting point for final status talks.

"Netanyahu has fashioned his entire political career out of saying no to the peace plans of others - no to Rabin's Oslo Accords; no, even, to Sharon's pullout from Gaza; no to Obama's call for a solution based on 1967 borders," Karon wrote.

Ex-GOP Rep. Joe Scarborough, star of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program, defended Netanyahu over the U.S. President, accusing Obama of ignorance for failing to understand the "existential threat that Israelis face."

"I think the President views Israel in a way different than most Presidents in the past," Scarborough said this morning. "I think the President is firmly committed to Middle East peace at all price -- what he defines as Middle East peace -- and I think he's less concerned about Israel's security than other Presidents in the past, Democrat and Republican alike."

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