For the better part of half a century, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has fought for a singular goal: To rally United States government support for the policy goals of the Israeli government. On Sunday, President Obama appeared before AIPAC’s annual conference to argue that the interests of Israel and its government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, are in fact distinct.
Obama repeated his claim, first made Thursday, that had infuriated the Israeli Prime Minister: “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” he said. Then he went on, taking issue with Netanyahu’s outrage at this claim coming from an American president. “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,” the president said. “I’ve done so because we can’t afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades to achieve peace.”
It is rare moment for a U.S. president to sweepingly dismisses the concerns of a major ally. It is rarer still when that happens just two days after they met, and just a few days before the ally is scheduled to address the U.S. Congress.
But Obama’s speech seemed intended to make a point. Elsewhere in the speech, Obama made the case explicitly to stop what he termed the “procrastination” that has typified the Netanyahu government.
First, the number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian Territories. This will make it harder and harder — without a peace deal — to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state. Second, technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself in the absence of a genuine peace. Third, a new generation of Arabs is reshaping the region. A just and lasting peace can no longer be forged with one or two Arab leaders. Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained.
In the world view of AIPAC, which officially exists to build ties between the U.S. government and the government of Israel, such a claim is a sort of heresy. The lobbying organization has always approached supporting Israel as a black and white matter: You are either with Israel or against Israel.
But Obama is making a different case–to the American Jewish community, the international community and the people of Israel–that Netanyahu’s approach is hurting the country he leads. On Wednesday, Netanyahu will address a joint session of Congress in Washington. There he will make his rebuttal. But the line has already been drawn. As they have for much of the past two years, two men find themselves in opposition on perhaps the most important policy issue in the Middle East, even as their countries continue their historic partnership.