Obama at AIPAC: Another Missed Opportunity

It has been often said of the Palestinians and the peace process (first by Abba Eban), that they have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to achieve peace.   At some point, the conventional wisdom that the Palestinians seek peace (as opposed to the destruction of Israel)  needed to be challenged, and this weekend it was, at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where the theme was the need for a one state solution, with Israel the missing state in the equation.

Barack Obama had his third try at speaking at the AIPAC Policy Conference on Sunday and once again, he also missed an opportunity, failing to communicate to Iran the seriousness of U.S. purpose in stopping their nuclear program.  Obama received a tepid  reception (one participant who has been attending the policy conference for 20 years, said it was by far the weakest reception for any President who has spoken).  In 2004, there was a raucous welcome for George W. Bush, and chants of four more years.

President Obama's  entrance onstage was accompanied by the playing of Hail to the Chief, so it was impossible watching on television to gauge the strength of his welcoming applause. So too, the C-SPAN cameras never panned on the audience, to see how often they stood to applaud.   

But given the buildup to his talk, and the importance of his meeting with Bibi Netanyahu on Monday, the speech provided an opportunity to lay out the U.S position on the crucial issue of confronting Iran over its nuclear program.  Obama's talk to AIPAC followed a series of counterproductive comments on the subject by Administration officials, particularly those of General Martin Dempsey: "Iran is a rational actor"  and Israel attacking Iran would be "destabilizing" and "not prudent."

Dempsey further muddied the picture by repeating the fiction that the intelligence community does not know if Iran even has plans to weaponize its nuclear capability.   

If one relied on U.S "intelligence assessments,"  Saddam had a nuclear weapons program underway in 2003, but Iran gave up its program that same year, and has never resumed it, while continuing efforts to develop its nuclear  "energy" resources.

It is no wonder that Israeli officials on their way to Washington have to be increasingly concerned that they will need to go it alone if they decide that the U.S will not act, other than Obama pursuing another round  of sure to fail diplomacy, and relying on new sanctions that the Administration  worked hard to delay until this summer before they were implemented.

The key to President Obama's thinking on the subject came from one segment of his talk on Sunday:  

"Already, there is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend upon to fund their nuclear program.  For the sake of Israel's security, America's security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster; now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built. Now is the time to heed that timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: speak softly, but carry a big stick.  As we do, rest assured that the Iranian government will know our resolve, and that our coordination with Israel will continue."

High oil prices are indeed a concern of the President and his re-election team. Their concern is not that Iran will benefit, but rather that  America's economy will be damaged. And that could impact the job prospects of one individual in particular, who has been spinning a fairytale of the economic recovery he has brought to the land.  

The President's message here could not  be clearer -- for it is the pro-Israel community in the United States and Israel itself, who have been most vocal in trying to ratchet up the pressure on Iran and to get the U.S and Israel on the same page in terms of  red lines that will force action by both countries to prevent Iran from becoming the world's 10th nation with nuclear weapons.  The President has now offered his assessment of that pressure: "bluster" and "much loose talk of war."

In essence, the President has signaled that he will say all the right things about having Israel's back, and not being a bluffer, and  about all the options that remain on the table (without specifically mentioning the military option -- hint, hint).  But the President has a very different timeline than Israel this year.  Israel's timeline is focused on  the point at which it would be too late to stop Iran from going nuclear. That point may be in the next few months. Obama's timeline is focused on November 6th.  His goal is to use all the approaches that do not involve military action and run out the clock, so that no new military conflict begins that could upset the carefully laid out campaign themes that involve Obama as the war-ender,  the economy fixer, and the redistributor in chief (making the rich pay their fair share).  

Steve Rosen has argued that Obama has had policy conflicts with Israel, some of them public, but that this has been strategic on his part.  Rosen believes that the conflicts arose because Obama believed that he needed to create space between the U.S and Israel in order for his Muslim outreach  to be successful (believable to the Muslim world). A new film produced by the Emergency Committee for Israel provides a history of this effort to create space between the two countries

Rosen argues that if Obama were serious about healing the breach between the two countries, he would need to do four things in his speech:

1.   Sharpen the message the U.S is sending to Iran

2.   Criticize the Abbas government for failing to return to peace talks with Israel

3.   Publicly state that a right of return for 5 million (so -called) Palestinian "refugees"' is not going to happen.

4.   Adopt the Negroponte doctrine that the U.S.  will veto all one sided U.N Security Council resolutions attacking Israel.

Obama skated around #1 in his talk to AIPAC, and was missing in action on the other points.   And the reason for that I believe is that for Obama, the Muslim world and its sensibilities matter.  Israel, on the other hand is an annoyance, whose leaders have the ability mainly to create political problems for him at home.  

If Obama is re-elected, Israel's leverage on US politics will be severely diminished in a second term. Obama will not have to face the voters again or raise money from the Jewish community.  Is there any reason to expect that Obama will pursue a new harder line against Iran, and coordinate more with Israel in a second term, assuming the situation is not resolved by January 2013?  Is there reason to think Obama will blame Israel less and the Palestinians more in a second term for failure to achieve peace, or that the pressure on Israel to make concessions will be more intense than ever before?

The answer to these questions, I think is obvious.  Barack Obama did nothing at AIPAC to allay the concerns of any American who stands with Israel.