From accolades like “compelling” to accusations like “Auschwitz borders” to radio silence, to label the Jewish response to President Obama’s speech on Middle East policy as diverse understates matters.
The very breadth of the Middle East policy speech—5,600 words and covering the entire Middle East and decades of history—helps explain the wildly divergent responses from Jewish groups and opinion shapers, even among some who are otherwise often on the same page.
One could as easily pick out points for Israel—slamming the Palestinian Authority’s pact with Hamas as well as its bid for unilateral statehood—as one could the demerits—for many, the most explicit endorsement of the pre-1967 lines as the basis for future borders by any American president.
But there are deeper currents running through the differences of opinion, reflecting a debate over how far Jewish groups must hew to Israeli government policy in the face of an imminent Palestinian push for statehood that some communal officials feel Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to address adequately.
Another consideration was whether it is wise to alienate a U.S. president who seemingly has embraced a narrative of democracy promotion that some Jewish groups have long held up as a banner.
The most telling difference was between the cold-as-ice reaction issued by Netanyahu’s office and the effusive praise that emerged from two mainstream groups, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League—usually among the first to take into account t Israeli government positions when formulating their own responses.
Netanyahu’s statement focused on the areas where he and Obama disagree, and virtually ignored the president’s nods toward recent Israeli demands.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress,” the statement said. “Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines.”
The call to return to the parameters of President George W. Bush’s 2004 letter—a return that Obama officials have consistently rejected—was a clear response to the line in Obama’s speech that made front-page headlines around the world: “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states,” he said.
Previous presidents have spoken of the 1967 lines as an acknowledgment of Palestinian aspirations—not as a basis for negotiations.
Netanyahu’s statement alluded to other parts of Obama’s speech that crossed Israeli government red lines, including a call for an eventual full withdrawal from the West Bank, and postponing discussion of refugees and Jerusalem until later. Netanyahu wants a permanent Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, and says outright that a “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendants is off the table.
Yet the AJC and ADL statements skated over these distinctions and went straight to the portions of the speech that represented Obama’s “gives” to a number of Netanyahu’s demands.
“The Palestinians must heed the President’s warnings about imprudent and self-defeating actions, including through campaigns to delegitimize Israel, plans to unilaterally declare statehood, and a unity agreement with a Hamas which remains committed to violence, rejection and anti-Semitism,” said the ADL in a statement that called the speech “compelling.”
That was a reference to Obama’s calling out of the Palestinian Authority for its recent pact with Hamas: “The recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel: How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” Obama said in his speech. “And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.”
The AJC focused on Obama’s rejection of the P.A. bid for U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood.
“President Obama has sternly warned the Palestinians, and the international community, to stop this senseless drive to try to achieve a state without any negotiated agreement with Israel,” it said in its statement.
There were other more subtle “gives” that Jewish organizational officials noted in conversations after the speech: Obama referred deliberately to 1967 “lines” as opposed to “borders,” adopting Israel’s posture that the lines never had any international recognition, as opposed to the view of the Palestinians, who see them as the immutable border of their projected state.
Additionally, Obama rejected attempts, as he put it, to “delegitimize” Israel, a buzzword that Netanyahu has made a central platform of his diplomacy.
In mirror-image statements, the Zionist Organization of America and the Simon Wiesenthal Center skated over such concessions and took their cues from Netanyahu’s statement. The two organizations used variations on the phrase “Auschwitz borders” to refer to the 1967 lines. The ZOA went so far as to call on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to rescind its invitation to the president to speak on Sunday, labeling Obama the most hostile U.S. president to Israel ever.
B’nai B’rith International delivered a mixed response, praising Obama for rejecting the pact between Fatah and Hamas and the bid for U.N. recognition, but expressing “concern” about the 1967 lines. Liberal groups, like J Street and Americans for Peace Now, praised the speech as a basis for restarting stalled talks.
There were two elephants in the room saying nothing at all: AIPAC, which will host both Obama and Netanyahu at its annual conference beginning Sunday, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the umbrella foreign policy group.
A former AIPAC director, Neal Sher, told JTA that the group’s leaders at least should be protesting Obama’s 1967 reference. “It would be unconscionable of the AIPAC leadership not to publicly express serious concerns about it,” he said.
Yet the real concerns may be with Netanyahu’s leadership in terms of devising a strategy of how to deal with the Palestinian bid for statehood. In recent months, Jewish leaders across the spectrum have privately expressed impatience with what they see as Netanyahu’s failure to come up with a plan, and were hoping he would do so when he addresses a joint meeting of Congress next Tuesday.
In a conversation with the Jewish leaders immediately following the speech, Steven Simon, the National Security Council official in charge of dealing with Israel and its neighbors, described September, when the U.N. General Assembly convenes, as a coming “train wreck.”
He said the only way to get the European states to oppose U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood is to come up with another plan, which is what the Obama administration is trying to do.
Notably, there was no pushback from the callers, although there had been some negative reaction to Obama’s failure to say outright that demands for Palestinian refugees’ “right of return” to Israel should be off the table.
There also was the sense with the speech that Obama was moving away from what was perceived as his previous over-eagerness to engage with the region’s autocrats. His speech was unstinting in its condemnation of Syria and Iran, and the bulk of it was dedicated to promoting democracy in the region.
That, and his rhetorical shifts regarding the Palestinians, were signs that the president deserved a hearing, Jewish communal officials said.
Or, as the ADL statement put it: “This administration has come a long way in two years in terms of understanding of the nuances involved in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace and a better understanding of the realities and challenges confronting Israel.”