It could’ve been worse.
After the disaster that was the Presidential speech to AIPAC in 2011, no doubt many delegates to this year’s gathering (which is constantly portrayed by assorted anti-Semites as a nexus of Jewish power yet curiously turns out to be as dangerous for Obama as a petting zoo) have offered thanks to the heavens for the Iranian nuclear program. Every minute spent speechifying about Iran is a minute saved from the discourse on Israel’s shortcomings in the peace process. After the president’s minions had berated Israel on various occasions for failing to embrace the Arab spring (now demoted from a glorious daybreak of democracy to “upheaval and uncertainty”), for lack of good manners vis-à-vis Obama’s best friend, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, for resembling an Islamist theocracy with regard to the rights of women, all that Obama has had to do was to avoid those issues and he had the audience in the bag.
In his speech, Obama repeated the theme he’d struck in his interview with “The Atlantic”. He wants the support of the pro-Israeli community, but makes no apologies for treating the elected leader of the Jewish democracy as pariah, for setting preconditions that drove the Palestinian leadership up a tree and made negotiations impossible, for picking pointless fights with Jerusalem over a few apartment buildings, for his conscious effort “to put a daylight” between America and Israel, for failing to uphold the recommendations of the UN commission on the Marmara incident, for setting Israel’s neighborhood on fire and for deliberately avoiding the subject of Egyptian-Israeli relations until it was almost too late. Being oblivious to the consequences of his own actions, the President has declared today that he “makes no apologies for pursuing peace”. Maybe he should have apologized for making this dream even more impossible.
The stubborn refusal to acknowledge past mistakes must alert American friends of Israel to the basic truth about their President. He believes that the course he took in the first two years of his administration – one of the direct verbal and political confrontation with the Israeli government he doesn’t like – was correct and justified. The make-nice routine that has set in after the midterm elections was the result of political necessity, not of – to use Obama’s own recommendation to the Israeli Jews – “profound soul-searching”. The logical assumption should be that if Obama gains a second term, relations with Jerusalem will worsen again.
In order to secure this freedom of future action against Netanyahu, Obama demands that right now, he’ll be judged not by his past statements or ideological positions that he’s injected into the Israeli-American dialog, but by his deeds. Here, in terms of military cooperation and budgetary assistance, he can rightly claim a lot of credit. Of course, certain omissions also help. Obama hasn’t mentioned that the bilateral security cooperation was purposely degraded by the administration of his predecessor to punish Israel for selling drones to China. Obama made a point of his speech in the UN last September yet said nothing about the “après veto” speech by his representative to the UN Susan Rice, who famously decried the “folly and illegitimacy” of the Jewish presence in the lands of the Bible.
Having in essence called his Israeli ally a stupid transgressor of international law, half a year later Obama was forced to mobilize American diplomatic might to prevent Palestinians from achieving unilateral recognition in the UN – that, after he tried to persuade them and failed miserably. And, of course, between the “Atlantic” interview and the speech at AIPAC, presidential speechwriters had removed all notice of the Marmara affair – mainly so as not to upset Obama’s favorite Islamist in Ankara, but also because the administration gave Israel no real support on this occasion, only pressure.
On the star-billed subject – Iran – Obama was, as expected, non-controversial. Except of his deliberate failure to mention the Green Revolution that his indifference helped to strangle, and his hilarious chiding of those who spread “too much loose talk of war” – like his own Secretary of Defense, perhaps? – the President said nothing unreasonable. Of course, the diplomatic successes of this administration were made possible by a combined effort of Israeli and European intelligence to undo the damage caused by the National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 and by the high credibility of the Israeli threat of violence should the Iranian march to the bomb continue unabated. Of course, Obama’s best friend in the region – Turkey – remains the weakest link in a chain of sanctions around the ayatollahs’ neck. Of course, the regime is ignoring the sanctions altogether. Of course, just as Obama was appealing to the rational interest of Iranian leadership, the tally of votes in Tehran showed an increase in the “parliamentary” power of fanatics like Mesbah Yazdi who make Ahmadinejad look like a harmless cook. Of course, the American intervention into a civil war in Libya under the pretext of protecting civilians destroyed the spirit of cooperation with Russia and China, making further progress on Iran in the UN highly unlikely.
Nevertheless, it was hard not to accept Obama’s main argument – the sanctions against Iran are unprecedented, they are going to get worse and deserve a window of opportunity for evaluation. Without threatening Iran with military strikes directly, Obama has denounced the pernicious idea of containment and declared that to prevent Iran from laying its hands on a nuclear weapon is an American, not an Israeli, security interest. Finally, he made it clear that Washington recognizes the difference between the American and Israeli assessment of the Iranian threat and leaves the final decision to Jerusalem. Netanyahu, who expressed his satisfaction with the speech, can go into the White House tomorrow slightly reassured.
But behind the closed doors, the Prime Minister of Israel will still face a man who, when it was politically expedient, has treated him like an enemy, whose administration had promoted the idea of a regime change in Israel, whose base is chock-full with real “Israel-firsters” – those who blame Israel first and ask questions later. The Israeli press hasn’t failed to notice that in this speech, Obama didn’t mention Netanyahu individually (only in the company of the Defense Minister Barak), made a point of calling him “Bibi” instead of “Benjamin,” and attempted – not for the first time – to address the Israeli public over his head about the horrors of war.
To persuade the Israeli government that he really isn’t bluffing and stalling to get past the elections, Obama needs not the easy plaudits of the AIPAC delegates, but the full trust of Netanyahu and the people he represents. On the verge of the Purim celebration of impossible turnarounds, let us hope and pray for this miracle.