The Choice

I was wrong.  I thought it made little sense for President Obama to deliver a speech to the AIPAC policy conference, because he'd lose points globally if all he did was pander, and he'd face a firestorm at home if he told the truth and offered up a little tough love. Plus, I thought it was a little demeaning for a sitting president to appear in front of any foreign policy lobbying group. 

But Obama was cleverer than that, which is one of the countless reasons why he is president and I am not. Instead of choosing between pandering and speaking truth to power, he did both.

Specifically, he offered up the usual bromides about shared values and ironclad commitments, and put down various markers about the U.N. vote and Hamas and security that were obviously intended to defuse suspicions. He also used the opportunity to expose how his critics-including Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu-had deliberately mischaracterized what he had said in his speech at the State Department last Thursday, especially his reference to the 1967 borders as a baseline for negotiations.

But the important part of the speech was when he told AIPAC what everyone knows: Israel and its die-hard supporters here in the United States have a choice. Down one road is a viable two-state solution that will guarantee Israel's democratic and Jewish character, satisfy Palestinian national aspirations, remove the stigma of looming apartheid, turn the 2007 Arab Peace Plan into a reality and ensure Israel's acceptance in the region, facilitate efforts to contain Iran, and ultimately preserve the Zionist dream. Down another road lies the folly of a "greater Israel," in which a minority Jewish population tries to permanently subjugate an eventual Arab majority, thereby guaranteeing endless conflict, accelerating the gradual delegitimization of Israel in the eyes of the rest of the world, handing Iran a potent wedge issue, and making the United States look deeply hypocritical whenever it talks about self-determination and human rights.

The speech also tells you how much Obama has learned since taking office. After being repeatedly humiliated by Netanyahu and the lobby ever since the June 2009 Cairo speech, Obama has learned that he can't take them on directly. By necessity, therefore, he's now relying on the indirect approach. His strategy is to keep pointing out what is palpably obvious: the alternative that Netanyahu and AIPAC propose is simply not going to work, and the costs of trying to pursue it will only increase with time. And because this argument has the merit of being true, more and more people are going to be convinced by it.

It would be better, of course, if a great power like the United States could use its considerable leverage directly, in order to bring the parties to an agreement.  Indeed, it would have been far, far better had the U.S. done so during the Oslo peace process, instead of acting like "Israel's lawyer."  But given political realities in the region and the lobby's continued influence here in the United States, what Obama did yesterday was probably the best one could hope for.   I doubt it will be enough, but it was better than I expected.

Stephen M. Walt

If you don't expect much, it's hard to be disappointed

Despite the reservations I expressed yesterday, I ended up listening to the President's speech, doing a few press interviews, and exchanging emails with a lot of friends and colleagues. The most striking thing about these exchanges was how varied the reactions were, even among some colleagues who have fairly similar views about what should be done. Some of my interlocutors thought the speech was a sell-out; others thought it was a remarkably positive statement, and plenty of others thought it was evenly balanced between positive statements and unfortunate sins of omission or commission.

As for me, I spent a good portion of the post-speech period wondering if I had been too hard on the president. After all, I said a couple of days ago that the poor guy was trapped, so perhaps I should give him more credit for doing the best he could under less-than-promising circumstances.

But after some reflection, I'll stick with my initial bottom line. What matters most is not what Obama said today, but rather what the various parties actually do.  Obama has clearly positioned the United States on the side of reform-which in my view is the right course-even if a lot of gaps and inconsistencies remain. He was silent about Saudi Arabia, for example, and apart from some modest aid packages for Egypt and Tunisia, and some largely meaningless sanctions on Syria, it was not clear what he was actually going to do to promote democratic change. He offered a convincing account of why he believes that change is both morally preferable and strategically desirable, but his recipe for getting there was unstated. Unlike his predecessor, he does seem to realize that we can't spread democracy at the point of a rifle barrel. But then there's Libya, where this seems to be exactly what we are trying to do.

As for the lengthy section on Israel-Palestine, it offered intriguing nuances but not much in the way of a novel plan of action. He drew some clear rhetorical distinctions between his views and those of the Israeli government, which will make for some interesting exchanges when Israeli prime minister Netanyahu visits the White House. Similarly, although Obama's emphasis on the 1967 borders as a baseline for negotiations is not wholly new, it's not a framing of the problem that Netanyahu & Co. favor. And Obama's call for a full and complete Israel withdrawal in the context of a two-state agreement is at odds with Israel's desire to keep a military presence in the Jordan River valley, and certainly his notion of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state is contrary to the disconnected Bantustans that Netanyahu has in mind.

On the other hand, Obama made it clear that he opposes the effort to have the U.N. General Assembly recognize a Palestinian state in September, and he characterized this proposal as part of an effort to isolate and delegitimize Israel. Yet a few paragraphs later, he said that "what America and the international community can do is state frankly what everyone knows: a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples." I'm confused: if two states is what is needed, then supporting the U.N. effort is a good way to break the current logjam and get the negotiations that Obama wants going.

So in the end, I'm back where I started. What matters going forward is not so much what Obama said this afternoon--though as always, he said it well--but what the United States and the other interested parties actually do in the weeks and months ahead. If events in the region proceed as Obama hopes they will, then one day people will look back on this speech as a visionary moment when the United States aligned itself with positive forces for change. But if the push for democratic reform falls short, and if the Israel-Palestinian conflict continues unabated, then the speech will be seen as another empty vessel, and Obama will be remembered as a pretty good talker, but not much of a doer.