President Obama’s speech at AIPAC straddled the line of Jackie Mason standup. It turns out that when the President said last Thursday that Israel should return to its ’67 borders, it wasn’t exactly what he meant. Who said I was referring to 1967. I meant 1867. And even 1867, I didn’t mean CE, I meant BCE. And why did you assume I was talking about Israel’s border. I was talking about French Guyana’s borders.
This was the first time in my life that I ever felt sorry for Barack Obama, an incongruous sentiment for a man so talented and who also just happens to be the most powerful man in the world. Why did he elicit my sympathy? Because you could see in both his body language and utter absence of passion that he had been defeated. The president dithered, bobbed and weaved. He came into a room filled with 10,000 pro-Israel activists knowing that he blew it, not just with the American Jewish community but with history as well.
For months Arab democracy has been breaking out all over the world. President Obama had yet to give one major policy speech on this unprecedented uprising. Yet, when he finally chose to do so and thus recapture the traditional American President’s epitaph as ‘Leader of the Free World,’ he could not help but insert a highly inflammatory line about Israel that was immediately seized upon by the world’s media thereby extinguishing the speech’s other content. And even on the Israel front he was forced to so dilute the ’67 border statement that it became utterly meaningless.
“It was my reference to the 1967 lines—with mutually agreed swaps—that received the lion’s share of the attention… and since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” means. By definition, it means that the parties themselves -– Israelis and Palestinians -– will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967… It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years. It allows the parties themselves to take account of those changes, including the new demographic realities on the ground, and the needs of both sides.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu could not have expressed it better.
So why did President Obama destroy his Arab democracy speech, not to mention further erode his already tenuous Jewish support, with a reference to the ’67 borders that he has now climbed down from? Here we have a president with the eloquence of Martin Luther King, Jr. but who has yet to make a single memorable speech as President aside from the moving and dignified words he offered the night Bin Laden was assassinated. Last Thursday at the State department was his chance. Why did he blow it?
The President’s explanation at AIPAC was that he had no idea that the ’67 borders line was going to be so inflammatory.
“My position has been misrepresented… If there is a controversy, then, it’s not based in substance…. What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately.”
But the President’s claims to naiveté are ridiculous. To his detractors the President is many things. But he is no fool. He knew full well that being the first American President to publicly call for a return to the ’67 lines was a bomb waiting to detonate. As the New York Times reported, Netanyahu had already had a “furious” phone call with Hillary Clinton the morning of the speech when the Secretary of State phoned to inform the Prime Minister that the line would be included at the President’s insistence. Obama knew darn well that the demand to return to the pre-6-Day-War borders spoke directly to the Palestinian narrative of an expansionist, imperialist Israel hell-bent on swallowing up the land of a defenseless people who were peacefully growing olives and herding sheep when Israel suddenly and without provocation sent in its tanks in 1967 to expand the borders of a burgeoning empire.
So why did Obama say it? Why did he personally insist on including it?
I believe the answer to this question speaks directly to the growing mistrust that American Jewry, who gave the President 78% of its vote in 2008, has for Obama and why Democratic Jewish donor purses are closing.
Stated simply, this President has a strange obsession with Israel. Even when he’s talking about the unprecedented breakout of democracy across oppressive Arab regimes he still has to connect it to Israel. He could easily have given a stand-along speech about Israel and mentioned the ’67 lines there. But he believes to his core the oft-repeated falsehood that the secret to wide-ranging Middle East peace is a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and that Israeli intransigence is largely responsible for Arab anger and Middle East strife. And even as history proves him wrong and the Arabs start directing their anger against their real oppressors like Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt, Qaddafi of Libya, and Assad of Syria, President Obama still thinks that at its root the protests are against Netanyahu of Israel.
Every president wants to be historic and Obama has decided that a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict will define his presidency. If he pressures Israel enough to remove any military presence from the Jordan valley and return for the most part to its ’67 borders, not to mention exposing Netanyahu as a stiff-necked obstructionist, he will achieve what no President has before him.
Sadly, the President has forgotten that Jimmy Carter pulled off just that kind of breakthrough, brokering peace between Israel and Egypt, yet is still remembered as a failed President because he lost the larger battle of freedom to Islamists in Iran who initiated a war against the West, which we are still fighting, and established a prison for freedom-loving Muslims.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the international best-selling author of 25 books, including his recent work “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life,” and broadcasts widely on television and radio. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.