Obama at AIPAC: What the Decline of American Power Means for Israel

President Obama’s speech to the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference on Sunday predictably offered lots of “red meat” for pro-Israel constituencies.  But, in heavily veiled language, the President also made an enormously important point about the evolving character of international relations in the 21st century and what that means for the United States and Israel.  He also offered his listeners a more candid depiction than might have been expected of the tactical calculations guiding his approach to Arab-Israeli issues over the next several months.

The most important strategic argument contained in President Obama’s AIPAC address was embedded in the following passages:

[T]he current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination. . . .  Here are the facts we all must confront.  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.

And 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.

Just as the context has changed in the Middle East, so too has it been changing in the international community over the last several years.  There is a reason why the Palestinians are pursuing their interests at the United Nations.  They recognize that there is an impatience with the peace process — or the absence of one.  Not just in the Arab world, but in Latin America, in Europe, and in Asia.  That impatience is growing and is already manifesting itself in capitols around the world. . . .

[T]he march to isolate Israel internationally — and the impulses of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations — will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative.  For us to have leverage with the Palestinians, with the Arab states, and with the international community, the basis for negotiations has to hold out the prospect of success.

The first two points — about Israel’s demographic “time bomb” and the ways in which technology have undermined the utility of occupied territory as a security buffer — are not new, not even in American presidential rhetoric.  Obama’s third point — about the need for peace with Israel to be legitimated not just by Arab autocrats but by Arab populations — is new and significant.  Among other things, Obama’s words (almost certainly inadvertently) bring the American position regarding the basis for resolving the Middle East’s core conflict closer to that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, HAMAS, and Hizballah.

The President’s fourth point — about the changing international context for Middle East peace efforts — is also new in presidential rhetoric and absolutely critical.  The language used by the President describes this changing context in terms of an “impatience” with continued irresolution that “is already manifesting itself in capitals around the world” and “is growing.”  At the same time, there is a subtly conveyed assessment that this impatience is growing not just in predictable places, like the Arab world and Europe, but also in Latin America (with Brazil in the lead) and Asia (where the world’s greatest concentration of rising powers is found).  In other words, impatience is growing in precisely the non-OECD parts of the world that will gain relative power and influence at the expense of the United States in coming years.

That is why, in the President’s words, “we cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace.”  Obama justifies his position on the grounds that “the world is moving too fast” and that “the extraordinary challenges facing Israel would only grow.”  But what this really means is that, in coming years, America’s ability to continuing shielding Israel from the consequences of its own benighted choices will shrink.  America’s commitment to Israel’s security may be, as Obama described it, “unwavering.”  But the extent to which that unwavering commitment actually translates into incremental security for Israel will almost certainly decline in the future.

From Obama’s perspective, the inference Israelis should draw from his words is:  strike a deal now, before the ability of the United States to protect you in the rather comprehensive way it does now erodes in strategically consequential ways.  We have no confidence that Israel, even under whatever ruling coalition follows the current Netanyahu government, will take Obama’s words to heart and act on them.   But we are struck that Obama has implicitly acknowledged a reality we have been highlighting for some time — that, in terms of its ability to affect on-the-ground outcomes and achieve its own stated policy goals in the Middle East, the United States is a declining power.

On a more tactical level, the President’s AIPAC speech confirmed that, for the next few months, the Obama Administration’s focus in the Arab-Israeli arena will be forestalling what it anticipates could be a political train wreck for Israel (and, by extension, Obama’s own re-election bid) in New York this fall, where Palestinians may well ask the United Nations General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state within the June 1967 lines.  In an interview with ABC aired on the same day that the President spoke to AIPAC, Obama’s outgoing Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, said that “a major objective of this [endorsement of the 1967 lines as the starting point for negotiating final borders between Israel and Palestine] is to prevent a disaster for Israel from occurring at the United Nations General Assembly in September, when the Palestinians have said they will see a unilateral declaration of statehood.”

Clearly, the endorsement is part of Obama’s efforts “to have leverage with the Palestinians, with the Arab states, and with the international community” — in part, to slow down the drive to Palestinian statehood.  Obama explicitly acknowledged this at AIPAC when he noted that his decision “to speak about what peace will require” was taken “in advance of a five-day trip to Europe in which the Middle East will be a topic of acute interest.”

In this context, we also see the tragedy of Barack Obama — a President capable of understanding better than most high-level American politicians the ways in which the world is changing and what that means for the U.S. position, but unwilling to take meaningful risks or spend the political capital it might cost to pursue policies which would actually serve U.S. interests under these conditions.

To assuage the “blow” of his endorsement of 1967 lines as the starting point for negotiating final borders between Israel and Palestine — which, as the President accurately pointed out to AIPAC, is “nothing particularly original” — Obama tanked on the equally important and politically more controversial final states issues of Jerusalem and refugees.  At AIPAC, he also made clear that border negotiations would allow “the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground.”  This signifies Obama’s acceptance of his predecessor’s position, conveyed in a letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, that major West Bank settlement blocs should be contained within Israel’s final borders with a Palestinian state — meaning that those borders would extend well beyond the 1967 lines.

All of that is deeply disappointing for anyone with a serious understanding of “what peace will require.”  But even more disappointing — and damaging to U.S. interests — is Obama’s surrender to Israeli dictates regarding HAMAS.  As we wrote recently, “It is now absolutely imperative for the United States to revamp its posture toward Islamist movements in the Middle East, including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah, as well as HAMAS.  By continuing the same dysfunctional approach as his predecessors — demanding, up front, that these groups recognize Israel’s right to exist and disarm before negotiations and surrender everything else that makes them distinctive as political actors — Obama is not isolating the Islamists.  He is only deepening America’s isolation from some of the most vital political forces in the Middle East today, whose leaders have precisely the kind of democratic legitimacy the President claims to want to encourage.”

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 22 May 2011 under a Creative Commons license.  Cf. For a contrasting view on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: “In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, now supported by the Salafi (‘traditionalist’) current, is also largely funded by the Gulf states. . . .  The project of Washington, openly expressed by Hillary Clinton, Obama, and think tanks at their service, is inspired by the Pakistani model: the (‘Islamic’) army behind the scenes, the (‘civil’) government run by one (or more) ‘elected’ Islamic party (or parties)” (Samir Amin, “2011 : le printemps arabe ?” Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme, 22 May 2011).

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