American foreign policy Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Israel Israeli occupation

Obama’s gutsy, principled Middle East speech

Everyone agrees President Obama made a gutsy political call when he ordered the Navy Seals team to take out Osama bin Laden. There would have been a fierce backlash if the mission had failed. But he’s not getting credit for demonstrating even more political courage by calling for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement based on Israel’s borders before the 1967 war, with agreed-upon land swaps.

Just before Obama’s speech on the Middle East yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu had angrily “demanded” that the “reference to the 1967 borders be cut,” the New York Times reported. So Obama must have known that he was inviting a firestorm. Yet he decided that America’s interest in Middle East peace and stability trumped the short-term political gain he could have derived from saying nothing, doing nothing, and avoiding the wrath of right-wing American Jews and the politicians who pander to them.

Obama must have known that Republicans like Mitt Romney would accuse him of throwing Israel “under the bus.” He must have been aware that he was going to tangle with an Israeli Prime Minister who has never hidden his willingness to use American domestic politics as a tool to undermine U.S. Presidents. Netanyahu quickly criticized Obama right after the speech, calling the 1967 borders “indefensible,” even though Obama clearly was not calling for Israel to withdraw all the way back to those borders. When Bibi speaks to AIPAC on Sunday and Congress on Monday, although he probably won’t openly denounce Obama, he may well find ways to throw the American president under the bus, given his past behavior.

When Bibi was the Israeli opposition leader in the mid-1990s, he and his Likud operatives openly lobbied Congress to block the Clinton administration’s efforts to aid the Oslo peace process. In September, 1998, before he went to the White House during his first official visit to Washington as the newly elected Prime Minister, Netanyahu conspicuously met with Bill Clinton’s avowed political enemies: Jerry Falwell, Newt Gingrich and an adoring rally of the National Unity Coalition for Israel, a far-right Christian evangelical group. As the New York Jewish Week week reported at the time, “`[Bibi] was blatant about the fact that this trip had less to do with diplomacy than public relations,” said a 20-year veteran of the pro-Israel wars. `For him to meet with Gingrich and Falwell before he met with the president — and for him to choose to make his initial speech to a group that continues to bitterly attack Clinton — was a virtual declaration of war.’”

Yet Obama decided he would risk such a war and articulate a policy that, he believed, was in the interest of Americans, Israelis, Palestinians and the entire world. Now, cool heads might prevail in the American and Israeli governments and American Jewish community, and a direct confrontation could be avoided. The last thing AIPAC wants is a public battle between the Israeli and American governments; its primary goal is to solidify U.S.-Israel relations. It’s also quite possible that, if the current squabbling does continue, Obama won’t pay the steep domestic political price that some are predicting. American Jewish voters are solidly behind Obama, and only a small minority of them make Israel their first priority when assessing political candidates. The rise of J Street, a promising alternative to the conventional Israel lobby, has provided at least some political wiggle room for Obama to take stances on Israel that are supported by the liberal American Jewish majority –as he did in his recent speech.

But Democrats are very worried about diminished Jewish political donations and they don’t want Israel to be a wedge issue in the Congressional races. Obama decided to put those worries aside and did what he thought was right for America, Israel and the rest of the Middle East. The far left and much of the Arab media, predictably, did not think Obama’s speech was tough enough on Israel. But they don’t pay any attention to either Israel’s security needs or American political realities. I wish he had been bolder, and laid out the parameters of a settlement a bit more clearly. But coming on the heels of his order to take out bin Laden, Obama has given convincing answers to those who say he lacks the intestinal fortitude and temperament needed to make painfully difficult, principled foreign policy decisions.

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