President Obama's speech last week, which was described by the White House in advance as a speech intended to reach out to the Muslim world, probably will go down as one of the least understood major presidential speeches in modern memory. Confusion concerning the president's words and intent cut across the lines of Jews, Christians and Muslims, Democrats and Republicans, neocons and paleocons, friends and foes of Israel and friends and foes of the president.
For many serious commentators, the confusion lies in what the president meant by his statement, "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." Was this a shift of policy, no shift or a critical increase in U.S. presidential pressure on Israel in future peace negotiations?
A few days before the speech, the president's press secretary said a reference to the 1967 borders would not be in the speech. A day before the speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was informed privately by the administration that it would be in the speech. Mr. Netanyahu privately informed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton - before the presidential speech - of his profound opposition to that statement. He publicly condemned it after the speech and as he was getting on his plane to fly to Washington.
The remarks stayed in the president's speech but were placed just a few paragraphs from the end of a speech that was mostly about the "Arab Spring" and Mr. Obama's current view of it.
At the White House photo-op after the two-hour meeting between the prime minister and the president, Mr. Netanyahu severely chastised the president for his reference to 1967 borders. Many supporters of Israel both in the United States and abroad - including the Canadian government - echoed Mr. Netanyahu's grave concern about the 1967 borders statement. Even George Mitchell, the president's erstwhile Mideast peace envoy (and not considered pro-Israel), said that the 1967 border emphasis by the president was wrong.
However, seeing - or claiming to see - vindication of their efforts, former foreign policy aides to President George W. Bush and conservative commentators who supported Mr. Bush's "freedom initiative" in the Middle East rushed out to congratulate Mr. Obama. They credited him for switching from his "realist" policy of befriending Muslim dictatorial regimes such as Iran's to what they claimed was his endorsement of the Bush Middle East policy.
Other supporters of Israel were indifferent to the 1967 borders statement but gravely concerned about the central part of the speech concerning Muslim "outreach."
A statement from distinguished scholar Barry Rubin is most noteworthy: "President Barack Obama's speech on Middle East policy did more damage to U.S.-Israel relations than anything said by any previous president during the almost 40-year alliance between the two countries. Yet, ironically, the speech wasn't intended to be on Israel at all; Obama apparently thought he was being friendly toward Israel; and the point that created the biggest controversy [1967 borders] was something that the president didn't even say.
"The crisis, then, was caused by three factors: The ignorance of the Obama administration over the issues involved; Mr. Obama's chronic lack of friendliness toward Israel; and his refusal to recognize the threat from revolutionary Islamism.
"His speech mainly focused on a totally uncritical evaluation of the current upheavals in the Arab world. The idea that Egypt is about to become a radical state, that the Egypt-Israel treaty is jeopardized and that Israel is facing the prospect of a renewed enemy to its southwest with 12 times its own population simply has not entered Obama's calculations."
Harsh criticism of a yet different perception came from The Washington Post - a vehement endorser of Mr. Obama for president. The Post's editorial after the speech identified Mr. Obama's intention "to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to give up his U.N. bid and return to negotiations with Israel. To do so, he endorsed one of the conditions Palestinians have tried to set for talks: that they be based on Israel's 1967 border lines, with swaps of land to accommodate large Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This is not a big change in U.S. policy. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, along with previous Israeli governments, have supported the approach.
"But Mr. Netanyahu has not yet signed on, and so Mr. Obama's decision to confront him with a formal U.S. embrace of the idea, with only a few hours' warning, ensured a blowup. Israeli bad feeling was exacerbated by Mr. Obama's failure to repeat past U.S. positions - in particular, an explicit stance against the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
"Mr. Obama should have learned from his past diplomatic failures - including his attempt to force a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank - that initiating a conflict with Israel will thwart rather than advance peace negotiations."
In the president's Sunday speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the major media generally characterized it as a shift in tone, more conciliatory, clarifying, more explicitly supportive of Israel, than the president's main speech last week.
The question that remains unanswered for many is whether the president understood the diplomatic and political impact of his words, in which case, his tonal backpedaling at the AIPAC speech was anticipated and all part of a shrewd master strategy, or whether the impact of his words was inadvertent and based on inexperience or poor judgment. Fascinatingly, both the president's friends and his foes are found on both sides of those questions.
Tony Blankley is the author of "American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century" (Regnery, 2009) and vice president of the Edelman public relations firm in Washington.
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