May 7, 2009
Joe Biden's Muddled Tough-Love Speech to AIPACBy Leo Rennert
Vice President Joe Biden's speech to AIPAC -- immediately dubbed by the media as the Obama administration's tough-love approach to Israel -- is both more and less than that.
While Biden sought to portray the White House's emerging policy toward Israel as a break with the preceding administration's agenda, it actually didn't differ all that much from the Bush playbook.
For example, Biden embraced Bush's road map, which demands step-by-step actions by each side toward a final settlement. In line with the road map, Biden called on the Palestinian Authority "to combat terror and incitement against Israel" -- a part of the speech that you're not apt to find in mainstream-media coverage.
When it comes to Israel and its obligations, Biden preceded his remarks to AIPAC with "you're not going to like this" -- an unworthy attempted intended to grab anti-Israel headlines but devoid of any real substance that Israel somehow couldn't digest.
What after all did Biden demand of Israel?
"Israel," he said, "had to work toward a two-state solution" Twenty-four hours earlier, Netanyahu, without specifically embracing the same formula, told AIPAC that he's ready for immediate political, economic and security peace talks with the Palestinians -- a position that's not necessarily incompatible with Obama's.
Specifically, Biden declared, Israel "must not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow Palestinians more freedom of movement based on their first actions."
Again, not exactly impossible tasks for Netanyahu, who already has pledged not to build any new settlements. In fact, Biden's formulation about settlements is less restrictive than the road map's demand for a "freeze of settlement activity." By calling only for no additional settlements, Biden effectively leaves room for Netanyahu to pursue his own announced objective -- to permit allow more home building within existing settlements.
As for Biden's other demands, there also is plenty of room left for exactly which outposts should be dismantled and when. Ditto for more Palestinian freedom of movement, which Biden suggested ought to be tied to Palestinian compliance with road-map demands for Israeli security via an end to Palestinian terrorism.
In sum, Biden's specific agenda toward Israel leaves ample maneuvering room for Bibi when he shows up at the White House in a few weeks for his summit with Obama.
The Vice President's tone may have sounded a bit tougher, more demanding than the preceding administration's, but as a whole, it turned out to be a bit squishier than Condi Rice's disregard of the road map in the waning months of Bush's second term when she demanded nothing of the Palestinian Authority and muscled Ehud Olmert to move immediately toward a final-status agreement.
There were, however, a couple of troubling wrinkles in Biden's speech, which raise doubts about Obama's strategic foreing-policy viewpoint and its impact on Israel.
Biden made much of how Iran feeds on the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts, suggesting that resolving those conflicts, even at the risk of problematic Israeli concessions, might make it easier to tame Tehran's quest for hegemonic domination of the region. In that, the vice president had it exactly wrong. Tying Israel's security to wider regional problems is both unwise and, in the end, dangerous. It's unwise because Tehran's thirst for Mideast influence and power will not be slaked by twisting Netanyahu's arms. It's dangerous because it betrays the kind of illusory appeasement that made Western statesmen believe that Hitler might be satisfied with just gobbling up Austria and Czechoslovakia.
To be fair to Biden, he hedged his curious inversion of how the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could make it easier to limit Iran's reach and curb its drive to acquire nukes. While the Obama administration is prepared for all-out diplomatic engagement with Iran, he said, Tehran "doesn't have unlimited time" to show its real cards before Washington may have to resort to tougher measures and where "nothing is off the table."
Biden also called on Arab states to go beyond the contours of their peace initiative and make immediate "meaningful gestures " to thaw their relations with the Jewish state..
And one day after Hamas's supreme leader, Khaled Meshal, told the New York Times that he preferred Obama's rhetoric to Hillary Clinton's tougher pronouncements against his terrorist organization, Biden lined up squarely with Clinton's formulation that the new adminstration will not deal with Hamas unless and until it recognizes Israel, ends all violence and abides by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
In all, it was a speech with a wide assortment of buffet pickings from which Israeli supporters and critics could selectively cull out anything and everything to suit their different views. A bit of a muddle, but unfortunately sprinkled with a few lines bound to satisfy mainstream media reporters eager to turn it into an Israel-bashing exercise.