Politicians tailor their speeches to their audiences, so President Obama’s AIPAC speech will represent the most pro-Israel interpretation of his positions.
It is very important for him to improve his relationship with the pro-Israel segment of the US Jewish community before the election. This is an older demographic, Jews who vote and donate to their party — and many of them live in the important swing state of Florida. Many of these Jews would very much like to vote for Obama because of his social and economic policies, but are deterred by the anti-Israel image that he has developed.
So despite the fact that Jews make up 1.7% of the population (and Jews that care about Israel less than this), it is important for the President to woo these voters. There is also a large community of pro-Israel Christians, but they overwhelmingly lean Republican, and his stance toward Israel is only one of many reasons that they dislike Obama.
The AIPAC speech is the best we will get; even if Obama does not explicitly renege on his commitments, the interpretation of them as actual policy after the election will be somewhat less positive. Keep in mind that many administration functionaries are actively hostile to Israel.
So let’s look at the important points of the speech.
First, there are a lot of statements about “America’s unbreakable bond” and the the President’s “unprecedented” commitment to Israel’s security. While they produce a warm feeling, they do not imply specific actions. They are vague enough that they have been used to justify, for example, pressuring Israel to make dangerous concessions to the Palestinians. With all due respect, this is fluff which is best ignored.
Second, the President devotes significant time to rehearsing the ways in which his administration has supported Israel. Again with all due respect, he is unconvincing.
Yes, his administration vetoed an anti-Israel resolution in the Security Council, but then Ambassador Susan Rice made a speech supporting the substance of the resolution. Yes, military assistance and security cooperation with Israel have been maintained, but this is not something new — Obama simply continued the policies of previous administrations and the dictates of Congress. Yes, the US supported Israel’s right to stop the blockade-breaking Mavi Marmara, but so did the UN’s Palmer Commission. And then the US pressured Israel to stop its economic warfare against Hamas, thus effectively converting the flotilla affair into a Hamas victory.
I think we also must remember the message sent by the President’s Cairo speech, in which he compared the Palestinian lack of a homeland (that is, their inability to destroy Israel) with the Holocaust, as well as his visits to numerous Muslim nations while pointedly avoiding Israel.
Lest we forget, Barry Rubin provides a partial list of some of the less-supportive aspects of administration policy:
For example, on Iran there were his long attempts to court Iran and failure to support the opposition; his slowness on pushing forward sanctions; efforts to reduce congressional sanctions’ proposals; and giving a free pass to Russia, China, and Turkey to break the sanctions.
On Syria, there was his courting of the Syrian regime despite its repression, antisemitism, and sabotage of peacemaking which continued until the revolution within the country forced him to reverse course, at which point his administration supported a Muslim Brotherhood-led opposition leadership.
And then there’s the history of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” policy that always gave the Palestinian Authority a pass and put the onus on Israel; all the events you know about; the dissing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; the pressure on Israel to dismantle sanctions on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and so on.
Finally, and most serious, is the policy toward revolutionary Islamists and their rule or takeover of Turkey, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.
Third, regarding the ‘peace process’, Obama reiterates his position that a two-state agreement with the Palestinians is urgent, despite the fact that that no Palestinian faction has agreed to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or commit to an end of the conflict. In the face of the galloping success of radical Islam in the region — including, very significantly, the certainty of Islamist control of Egypt and the de facto abrogation of the Camp David agreement — Obama makes the absurd assertion that “the changes taking place in the region make peace [read: Israeli withdrawal from the territories] more important, not less.”
There is no doubt that in a second term, Obama would continue to pressure Israel to make an ill-advised deal with the Palestinians.
Finally, and most critical, is what he promises concerning Iran.
He talks about his success in implementing sanctions. But in fact Congress and the Europeans took the lead, dragging the administration along. Most importantly, sanctions, while certainly having an effect on the Iranian economy, cannot force the Iranian regime to give up its project. They are leaky, and the dictatorial Iranian regime can divert resources from civilian purposes almost without limit. It will create unrest, but so what? The regime has already shown itself capable of shooting protesters in the streets.
There is only one way to stop Iran without actual military action: to make a credible threat of such action, a statement that “if you do x, then we will attack you.” But here is what the President said:
I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power: a political effort aimed at isolating Iran, a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored, an economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.
Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.
What does he threaten here? A military effort to be prepared, not to act. And a general threat to use force when necessary to defend our interests, without defining the precise point at which those interests are violated. There is nothing new or particularly significant here.
It does not count as a credible threat to use force to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Without an American threat and since sanctions will not cause Iran to give up its program, only an Israeli attack (or threat thereof) can do so.
I do not think that the US should commit itself to go to war to defend Israel, which can defend itself. I do think that the prospect of an Iranian bomb is bad enough for US interests that we should be prepared to do whatever is necessary to prevent it. But I understand that the disastrous decisions of the previous administration to invade Iraq and to prosecute the war there as it did, as well as continued mistakes in Afghanistan by the present administration, have made it politically very difficult for the US to strike Iran today.
Therefore, from the standpoint of Israel, the best that can be expected from the US is a commitment to support Israel’s right and ability to take whatever actions it believes to be necessary to ensure its survival. What did Obama say that relates to this?
No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction…
I know that Israeli leaders also know all too well the costs and consequences of war, even as they recognize their obligation to defend their country…
Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States – just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs…
He seems to be saying saying that he will understand if Israel takes a decision to attack Iran. That is nice, but he has left open the question of what support the US would provide in that case. Such support could range from supplying bunker-busters or tankers or even providing midair refueling services (assuming that American tankers are capable of refueling Israeli planes), all the way to participating in an attack.
He has also not indicated how far he will go to pressure Israel to not attack. Other voices in the administration have recently been quite clear that it does not want to see an Israeli strike. Obama says that he thinks that diplomacy and sanctions should be given more time. At some point Israel will no longer agree with him. What then? It’s reasonable to expect that PM Netanyahu will ask him to be specific on these points at their meeting today.
Overall, there is nothing new or especially encouraging in this speech. Unless Obama makes some commitments to Netanyahu above and beyond what is here, Israel will be required to face the challenges of its enemies alone.