Washington — In the corridors of the Washington Convention Center, the buzz among more than 10,000 charged-up pro-Israel activists at this week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference was all about new U.S.-Israel tensions in the wake of President Barack Obama’s call for Israel-Palestinian negotiations based on the 1967 borders — with land swaps — and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s angry response.
But the surge of pro-Israel angst also highlighted deepening divisions within the American Jewish community as the peace process festers and a contentious presidential election season approaches.
Atlantic blogger Jeff Goldberg wrote on Monday that he was getting a flood of “hate mail” because of his suggestion that “Barack Obama might be correct in his analysis of Israel’s essential national security conundrum, and that Benjamin Netanyahu ought to think a bit more strategically about his relationship.”
Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman cited an unprecedented outpouring of letters, calls and e-mails slamming his group for praising Obama’s speech.
“To the people in our community who believe the president is an enemy of Israel, it doesn’t matter what he said,” said Foxman, a child survivor of the Holocaust. “I have not seen uglier e-mails in my life than I received on Friday. When someone says in an e-mail, ‘Why did God save you from the Holocaust,’ it shows how ugly it has become.”
The broad Jewish center, he said, is being “bombarded” by those whose agenda isn’t promoting strong U.S.-Israel relations — but advocating on behalf of specific ideological perspectives.
And with critical congressional and presidential elections just around the corner, the partisan vitriol is likely to get worse, Foxman warned.
“What’s troubling now is that we are on the cusp of a political season, and politics have gotten more intense, more extreme and less civil,” he said. “Every difference of opinion gets exaggerated and intensified into a major rift. The response to the president’s speech was so partisan, and so many are trying to use [Israel] as a wedge issue, and that is always deleterious to the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
Some of that partisanship was in evidence at a private meeting between Netanyahu and leaders of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), who defended Obama — and leaders of the Republican Jewish Coalition, who insisted they would continue attacking Democrats they regard as outside the pro-Israel mainstream.
The Hill newspaper reported on Tuesday that GOP leaders are openly talking about exploiting growing concerns over Obama administration policy toward Israel in their perennial effort to pry loose Jewish voters from the Democratic Party, suggesting “no return to the ‘67 borders” may become the rallying cry in the party’s Jewish outreach.
What seemed like a new U.S.-Israel diplomatic crisis was dialed down a few degrees with Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday — a speech that laid out his government’s red lines for negotiations without offering any new proposals for breaking through the peace process stalemate.
Even without new initiatives, Jewish leaders seemed relieved with a speech that stressed U.S-Israel common interests and seemed to avoid partisanship.
On Thursday, Obama, in his long-awaited official response to the Arab Spring, issued a strong call for the Palestinian Authority to return to direct negotiations with Israel and end its campaign to unilaterally declare statehood and win United Nations recognition in September.
“Efforts to delegitimize Israel will not end in peace,” he said, adding that the recent Hamas-Fatah unity agreement “raises profound and legitimate questions” for the Jewish state.
But in a paragraph that detonated like a rhetorical grenade in pro-Israel circles, he also said that the United States “believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”
The speech won quick praise from the ADL and the American Jewish Committee, but also fierce criticism from groups like the Zionist Organization of America, which accused Obama of “promoting and supporting the establishment of a Hamas/Fatah/Iran terrorist state on the Auschwitz 1967 indefensible armistice lines.”
In a follow-up address to the AIPAC policy conference on Sunday, a clearly irked Obama said his comments were “misrepresented” by those who ignored his call for negotiated territorial swaps. He argued that he was simply articulating what has been implicit in U.S. policy since the Clinton administration.
But even without indications of any looming U.S. initiatives in the region to follow up on the president’s speech, his reference to the 1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations created a firestorm that illuminated some of the widening divisions in the American Jewish community.
To some, the reaction crystallized the yawning and still widening gap between those who accept the inevitability of a two-state solution — and those who still regard it as a mortal threat to the Jewish state.
“Many of those who joined the artificial furor over President Obama’s comments on the ‘67 borders with lands swaps did so and twisted his words because they oppose any viable formulation for a two-state solution,” said Hadar Susskind, vice president of policy and strategy for J Street, the left-of-center lobby group. “Rather than just standing up and saying something that puts them on the wrong side of history, they hide behind this straw man of the ‘67 borders.”
By arguing that Obama was changing the rules of the Israeli-Palestinian game in articulating a formulation that has been the basis of U.S. policy for well over a decade, Susskind said, critics were trying to stir up opposition to any new U.S. peace moves.
Other Jewish activists say that while not articulating any new initiatives, Obama’s speech was meant to pressure the Israeli government to do what it considered too risky.
Steve Rosen, a former top AIPAC official who now works for the right-of-center Middle East Forum, agreed that Obama’s talk about a return to the 1967 borders “is not so different” from previous negotiations and the assumptions underlying them. “What was different was putting daylight between the U.S. and Israel only hours before the prime minister was due at the White House.”
To Rosen and others, the decision to raise the issue of the 1967 borders after weeks of internal administration debate represented a “deliberate signal” to Israel and “the opening move in a campaign of U.S. pressure.”
But if there is an administration campaign in the works, it’s far from clear what it might look like. And some analysts say the furor the past week conceals the lack of any serious administration strategy for breaking out of the current stalemate — a stalemate that has only deepened with the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement.
Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department official involved in peace negotiations and now a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, said the real issue surrounding Obama’s speech isn’t about whether the president is pro-Israel or anti-Israel — but whether his comments were “dumb or smart. And I believe they weren’t smart.”
The speech, intended primarily for the Arab world, was “more about ‘station identification’ than about new initiatives,” he said — essentially a holding action in the absence of any new proposals. “The administration hopes the speech will be an instrument to persuade the Europeans not to support the Palestinian statehood initiative. But it’s not sufficient, because there’s no plan behind it. I found the speech to be ill-timed and ill-advised; I don’t see what it accomplished.”
And by using the “trope of the 1967 borders,” the president all but guaranteed that his words about the wave of change washing across the Arab world would be ignored by the international press, Miller said — as was his statement that negotiated territorial swaps would be necessary in any Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
“What the Palestinians heard was instant redemption, and what the Israelis heard was national suicide,” he said. “Do you think anybody even heard the issue of swaps?”