Obama’s Troubling Words — and Omissions — at AIPAC Conference

The following is a response to President Obama’s AIPAC speech this past weekend. It was written by a DC community member who, for professional reasons, asked to remain anonymous. This piece represents his own opinion and is not a GTJ institutional stance. For an alternate view point, see Leora Itman’s piece here.  To read Stephen’s summary of four years at AIPAC Policy Conference, click here.

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Barack Obama’s speech to AIPAC on Sunday is deeply troubling not only for what he said about Iran and the Mideast peace process, but also for what he didn’t say on both topics.

On Iran, Obama tried to reassure us by saying Iran “should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.” But he also had a not-too-subtle warning for Israel: “too much loose talk of war” and “bluster” actually benefits Iran by driving up the price of oil exports that fund the Iranian nuclear program. Obama did not link Israel explicitly to such rhetoric, but whom else could he be referring to? His Republican presidential challengers? None have urged Israel to strike Iran. Israeli officials, on the other hand, have recently become more vocal about the potential need for military action to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon capability. Ehud Barak’s speech to the Annual Herzliya Conference last month is a case in point.

Here’s the problem with Obama’s mixed message to Israel. Iran’s Supreme Leader also heard it. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei heard Obama slapping Israel on the wrist for “loose talk of war” and declaring a firm belief that “an opportunity still remains for diplomacy backed by pressure.” Khamenei has heard that message from Obama for years and always has reacted the same way: by enriching uranium – a key nuclear weapon ingredient – at full speed.

Just as problematic is what Obama did not say on Iran. He made no mention of a need to stop Iran from obtaining the capability to assemble an atomic bomb – a red line for Israel. Obama only spoke of a need to give Iran an “opportunity … to make a decision to forsake nuclear weapons.” Israel says waiting for such a decision is a bad idea, because Iran is just several months away from being able to position the components of a nuclear bomb in places where they cannot be destroyed.

On the Mideast peace process, Obama made “no apologies” for pursuing a strategy that has left the Israel and the Palestinians even farther from peace than they were when he took office. Obama’s unusually harsh demand for Israel to stop all construction in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem caused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to make that a precondition for peace talks. Abbas said as much to Newsweek magazine last year. And when Abbas added another pre-condition by saying Israel had to agree to a Palestinian state comprising all of the West Bank territory captured in the 1967 war (with possible “land swaps” to “allow” Israel to keep some settlements in return for giving up parts of its pre-1967 territory), Obama liked the idea so much that he made it U.S. policy last year, effectively siding with the Palestinians on a core issue of the conflict with Israel.

Under previous U.S. administrations, the Palestinians negotiated with Israel without any such preconditions. Under Obama, Israel’s negotiating position has weakened.

And here’s the problem with what Obama didn’t say about Mideast peace. No mention of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority needing to sit down with Israel to negotiate peace unconditionally – something Israel has long tried to do. No demand for Abbas to stop his official media and a senior cleric from glorifying the killing of Jews. Just a bland reminder to the Palestinians to “recognize Israel’s right to exist, reject violence and adhere to previous agreements.”

“If you want to know where my heart lies, look no further than what I have done,” said Obama to AIPAC. Here’s what Obama has done: his administration “condemned” Israel for deciding to build homes in its own capital, he joined French President Nicolas Sarkozy in whining about having to work with Israel’s prime minister, and he traveled to several Muslim nations hostile to Israel after taking office while neglecting to visit the Jewish state itself. Enough said.