Posted by on March 07, 2012 in Blog
President Obama is in a tough spot. On the one hand, he wants to bring about a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians (which requires pressuring Israel), as well as avoid a catastrophic war with Iran (which requires pushing back on AIPAC’s war rhetoric). On the other hand, he needs to make the Israel lobby happy with him in the lead up to the election. The task of balancing these competing goals is further complicated by the fact that the Republican field is bent on falsely portraying him as anti-Israel. Can he pull it off?
On Sunday, Obama addressed AIPAC’s Policy Conference. He kicked off his speech with extensive praise to Israeli President Shimon Peres, and promised to present him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. And after some praise of America’s and Israel’s shared values and special relationship (required pandering in American national politics), Obama outlined the extent of the growth of the two countries’ strategic partnership:
Our military and intelligence cooperation has never been closer. Our joint exercises and training have never been more robust. Despite a tough budget environment, our security assistance has increased every single year. We are investing in new capabilities. We’re providing Israel with more advanced technology - the types of products and systems that only go to our closest friends and allies. And make no mistake: We will do what it takes to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge.
You’d think that announcing cuts at home while increasing aid to a foreign country would be politically damaging, but not in the case of Israel when Obama’s opponents are committed to appearing more pro-Israel than him (he’s not getting attacked on that one). Knowing they would be repeated later in the conference, Obama pre-empted the charge that he had somehow abandoned Israel diplomatically by outlining his record of backing Israel when Israel needed it:
When the Goldstone report unfairly singled out Israel for criticism, we challenged it. When Israel was isolated in the aftermath of the flotilla incident, we supported them. When the Durban conference was commemorated, we boycotted it, and we will always reject the notion that Zionism is racism. When one-sided resolutions are brought up at the Human Rights Council, we oppose them. When Israeli diplomats feared for their lives in Cairo, we intervened to save them. When there are efforts to boycott or divest from Israel, we will stand against them. And whenever an effort is made to delegitimize the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them. So there should not be a shred of doubt by now - when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.
It’s quite the list indeed, though if you ask us, that’s a little too much backing for Israel than is healthy or good for us. I mean, opposing accountability for Israel’s human rights violations and supporting them when they attacked unarmed aid ships? In a more evolved discourse, these would be things to be embarrassed about, but sadly not in current American discourse during an election season.
Without explicitly referring to his calls for a settlement freeze, the President fired back at critics of his efforts to pressure Israel to come to a reasonable peace agreement with the Palestinians by saying this:
I make no apologies for pursuing peace. Israel’s own leaders understand the necessity of peace. Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak, President Peres - each of them have [sic] called for two states, a secure Israel that lives side by side with an independent Palestinian state. I believe that peace is profoundly in Israel’s security interest.
As for Iran, Obama acknowledged that both the U.S. and Israel have an interest in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Obama also said that he will take “no option off the table,” including a military contingency, in the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. However, he also said that the sanctions were working, isolating Iran globally, seriously hurting its economy, and dividing its leadership. He further noted that all the war talk in the air was counterproductive:
There is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program. For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster. Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built.
Judging by how the rest of the AIPAC conference went, “now is not the time for bluster” was a futile plea.