AIPAC American foreign policy Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Dan Fleshler Israel Israel lobby Israeli settlements Palestinians Transforming America's Israel Lobby

Baker and Biden at AIPAC: A Tale of Two Speeches

At the AIPAC Policy Conference 20 years ago, Secretary of State James Baker made a widely publicized speech that, if I’m not mistaken, was written by Aaron David Miller. He told the throng:

For Israel, now is the time to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel. Israeli interests in the West Bank and Gaza, security and otherwise, can be accommodated in a settlement based on UN Resolution 242. Foreswear annexation; stop settlement activity; allow schools to reopen; reach out to the Palestinians as neighbors who deserve political rights.

That was greeted with loud boos and catcalls. The audible hostility continued even though Baker also made serious demands of the PLO and the Arab states.

Twenty years later, Vice President Joseph Biden told the AIPAC Policy Conference:

“Israel has to work for a two-state solution. You’re not going to like my saying this…But don’t build more settlements. Dismantle existing outposts. Allow Palestinians freedom of movement.”

The video of the speech indicates there was applause from at least part of the crowd, probably the centrist, moderate Democrats who are part of the AIPAC family, contrary to the popular notion that the organization’s members are all Likudniks, neo-cons and settler supporters. Everyone else was silent. But there was no overt hostility.

I wasn’t there, but based on conversations with two people who were in the room, and based on past attendance at these conferences, I can guarantee that the rest of the crowd just sat there uncomfortably, waiting for the next applause line, hoping and praying that Biden would not challenge the Israeli government again. During these plenary speeches, they wait for chances to give standing ovations to any and every politician who declares a commitment to Israel. That is how they had greeted Biden’s earlier, mandatory statement that America’s commitment to Israel’s security would not change, and was non-negotiable. They were in no mood for a fight, even though Biden’s remarks were confrontational, even though one of AIPAC’s chief goals is to make sure there is no distance between official American and Israeli positions, no public disputes between the two governments.

Why the different reactions to the two speeches? One of them has to do with political style. Bush and Baker were “tone-deaf” when it came to dealing with the Jewish community, said UCLA Professor Steven Spiegel in my book. He thinks the Bush ’41 team could have reduced at least some tensions with Jews in the U.S. by paying more attention to their fears and insecurities about Israel. A president, Spiegel told me, “needs to reassure them with the rhetoric, then do the right thing.”

In contrast to Bush ’41 and Baker, Obama, Biden and Clinton have a much better feel for the organized Jewish community. They have been doing their best to reassure the community of their commitment to meeting Israel’s core security needs, even though there have been public disagreements with Netanyahu on a number of issues.

Another reason why Biden (and, before him, John Kerry, who also criticized the settlements) got away with it is that these days, AIPAC makes a greater effort to avoid public confrontations with American administrations. Attendees at these conferences are repeatedly told that speakers are guests in AIPAC’s house as well as friends of Israel, and the speakers should be treated accordingly.

AIPAC is terrified of a public spat with an overwhelmingly popular Democratic President and his administration. Contrary to popular belief, AIPAC’s highest priority is not to promote the policies of Israeli governments, although it generally tries to do so. The group is more interested in solidifying America’s short- and long-term relationship with Israel. For that, it needs access to and good relations with bureaucrats in Foggy Bottom, the Pentagon and the White House. A public squabble with Obama and his team is not helpful to AIPAC staffers who need to get into the right rooms with the right people. They also need to get their board members into those very same rooms because that is an expected perk of voluntary leadership.

Bibi Netanyahu also seems to be doing his best to avoid a confrontation. In his videotaped speech to the AIPAC conference, he endorsed negotiations without preconditions and apparently abandoned his earlier commitment to addressing the Palestinians’ economic plight before serious political talks could occur.

But the confrontation probably can’t be avoided forever. Eventually, Obama will have to decide whether to insist loudly and clearly that, like Palestinian violence and incitement, Israel’s recalcitrant refusal to stop its settlements projects is unacceptable, and against American, Israeli and Palestinian interests.

If he stakes out that position, most American Jews –like most Americans—will support him. So will most of the U.S. Congress, although there will be some inevitable squalls from groups to the right of AIPAC and their congressional allies. If that happens, AIPAC will be in a tough position. Bibi should not count on the group’s ability to wriggle out of it, and give him the kind of raucous support it gave one of his mentors, Yitzhak Shamir.

12 thoughts on “Baker and Biden at AIPAC: A Tale of Two Speeches

  1. Bibi is fairly safe on his initial trip. The crunch will come next year after the recession ends and Obama will have more time to devote to foreign policy. If Obama fails to make any headway in negotiations with Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to deteriorate, Obama and Clinton will be desperate for some sort of progress and success in the Middle East. That is when they will start sending the negative signals that indicate that a rift is starting to develop between Jerusalem and Washington.

  2. Why there is nothing new in Biden’s speech:

    I partly agree with Thomas. But he is falling prey to the idea that the Arab/Israeli conflict is somehow insulated from what is going on around the world, particularly in the Middle East. For example, in 1967, one of the factors that played a role in leading up to the war was the fact that the US was bogged down in Vietnam. If Thomas’ scenario about deterioration in Afghanistan and Pakistand (and we might as well add Lebanon which will shortly have elections which may bring Hizbullah to power and the planned draw-down of forces in Iraq and the possible nuclearization of Iran) this will certainly impact us here. If it is seen that radical Islamic forces are on the move in these places, then among the Palestinians and others in the area that could lead them to saying that these forces will also force Israel to make concessions without any such comparable move on their side, so they might as well wait and get everything without having to make any concessions to the “peace process”, leaving Obama’s big plans high and dry.

  3. I just got Benny Morris’ new book “One State, Two States”. MANDATORY READING FOR EVERYONE!
    I was flipping through it and I came across his description of the “Clinton Parameters”. The fact is that the Palestinans REJECTED them. There was no agreement on anything. However, so that the Americans would not cut them off, they called the rejection “acceptance with reservations”, but the reservations pretty negated the whole thing.

    Importantly, it confirms what I stated here earlier: THE PALESTINIANS DO NOT AGREE TO JEWISH SOVEREIGNITY OVER THE WESTERN WALL.

  4. Dan, I think this is germane, and something that deserves wide attention after the politically-motivated hit on AIPAC and Jane Harman. It’s from yesterday’s Washington Times. Whatever you think of that paper, the facts speak for themselves, and they rebut a lot of the conventional wisdom on recent events:

    “Rep. Jane Harman, facing a likely primary challenge from the left flank of the Democratic Party, was one of the only lawmakers in 2003 to challenge the CIA’s program of harsh interrogations, according to a little-noticed letter to the CIA that was declassified last year.

    The California Democrat’s position contrasts with that of a longtime colleague and rival, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Mrs. Pelosi has in the past two weeks said she was powerless to stop the interrogation program, which critics say included torture, and that she was never told that the program was actually being implemented.

    Mrs. Harman, on the other hand, did voice some objections in 2003.

    A Feb. 10, 2003, letter she sent to the CIA said that the interrogation program “raises profound policy questions and I am concerned about whether these have been as rigorously examined as the legal questions. I would like to know what kind of policy review took place and what questions were examined.”

    In the letter, she also urged the CIA not to destroy tapes of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, an al Qaeda operative said to have been waterboarded, after an inquiry by the CIA’s inspector general.”

  5. As an addendum, I would just say, thank God we live in a country where Jews can participate in government, and bring to bear their longstanding commitment to the alternate traditions of respect for law and vigilance regarding human rights that have been so central to Jewish history and thinking. Jane Harman has irrefutably shown her indebtedness to both of these pillars of Jewish culture, which have helped secure and perpetuate the liberties that we all enjoy in the United States of America.

  6. I am an Israeli American peace activist that is active in the Southern West Bank reporting on new settlements and violations on Israeli law. To see it with your own eyes please visit my blog.

    all the best

  7. clascov (#4):

    Thanks for the reference to the article on Harman. We take insights and truth here from any source, including the Wash Times. Keep in mind, though, that she’s still a Democrat, albeit a hawkish one. And given her defense credentials, she needs to protect herself among centrist voters. That doesn’t mean her notes were insincere. But communications from Congresspeople that are hidden often magically see the light of day when it is politicallly beneficial.

  8. YBD:
    The portion of the Western Wall commonly known as the Wailing Wall that opens onto the plaza and where petitioners insert their notes was not in dispute. What was in dispute was another smaller portion of the wall further on.

  9. Dan, that is indeed something to bear in mind, but if your going to put a cynical construction on the whole thing, it’s surprising that Jane Harman was one of only a few to be clever enough to hedge her bets by straddling the issue. In contrast say, to Nancy Pelosi, who evidently had so such misgivings about appearing to endorse the CIA program without reservation.

  10. I’m sure your cynicism is more than warranted. I don’t harbor a great deal of faith in either party these days, excepting the individual lawmaker here and there. Strange for me, formerly a hardcore (and still registered) Democrat.

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