President Barack Obama took his new Middle East peace push today to a potentially skeptical audience: American pro-Israel activists. Obama told some 10,000 members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that while a president running for reelection might find it politically expedient to avoid controversy, he is making a new peace push now because the rapidly changing landscape of the Middle East means that delaying an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord would undermine Israel's security.
"I know that stating these principles ... generated some controversy over the past few days," Obama told the influential pro-Israel group gathering today to some laughter. "I was not entirely surprised. I know very well that the easy thing to do, particularly for a president preparing for reelection, is to avoid any controversy."
But he said, "I believe that the current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination."
Rapid Palestinian demographic growth in Israel and the occupied territories "will make it harder and harder -- without a peace deal -- to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state," Obama said to silence, going on to outline other reasons the issue demands urgency. "These are the facts."
Obama addressed head-on the rebuff his speech last week generated from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In his remarks Thursday on U.S. policy to the changing Middle East, Obama outlined his proposed terms for jumpstarting new Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Specifically, Obama said he believes that the Israelis and Palestinians should negotiate the borders for two future states based on "1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps." The formula refers to a baseline map that existed before Israel's seizure and subsequent occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem after the Six Day War of 1967. Many Palestinians see that territory as belonging to their future state.
However, Obama explained in today's AIPAC speech that in the framework he's proposed, Israel would not return to its pre-1967 borders--a position Netanyahu immediately rejected. Rather, the president said that the concept of "1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps" means there should be changes to Israel's pre-1967 borders. He also made it clear that such changes should arise from negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Speaking of the framework he introduced in Thursday's speech, Obama said that "by definition, it means that the parties themselves--Israelis and Palestinians--will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967." That clarification won applause for the president from the pro-Israel crowd. "That is what mutually agreed swaps means. It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation."
"If there's a controversy, then, it's not based in substance," Obama challenged his audience. "What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately. I have done so because we can't afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace. … Delay will undermine Israel's security and the peace that the Israeli people deserve."
AIPAC officials said they appreciated how Obama spelled out his approach to the peace process before their gathering today.
"Today, he categorically clarified that … Israel is not going back to '67 borders as they were," AIPAC spokesman Ari Goldberg told The Envoy. "We appreciate that; that is a big deal."
"To a lot of people in the community," Goldberg continued, Obama's initial invocation of the new approach on Thursday "was too vague and raises questions and concerns. Today he was specific. His specifics were very appreciated."
Obama received a half dozen standing ovations during his address, as well as a boo at his assertion that "the Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state."
Conference organizers said they were relieved at Obama's mostly positive reception Sunday. Pro-Israel activists on the right have sometimes criticized the president as too publicly insistent that Israel curtail Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.
"One boo, ten thousand people," one organizer said. "Overwhelming love and support."
Netanyahu, who met Friday with Obama at the White House, issued a statement in response to the president's remarks today positioning the Israeli prime minister as an ally of American peace efforts.
"I am determined to act together with President Obama to find ways to resume peace negotiations," Netanyahu said.
Some Middle East analysts said however they found Netanyahu's initial rejection of Obama's proposal both puzzling and revealing.
"Netanyahu's reaction to Obama's words revealed far more about the politics of the peace process in both countries than about the nuances of American policy," wrote former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer. The Israeli leader "wants peace, but it is unclear whether he or his coalition wants a peace process. The prime minister has laid out a series of preconditions and demands that are not unreasonable as outcomes of negotiations, but effectively serve as roadblocks to getting to negotiations."
Netanyahu is due to address the AIPAC conference Monday night. The Israeli leader is then due to speak to a joint meeting of both houses of Congress on Tuesday. Obama, who leaves for Europe tonight, will miss both presentations, but is certain to follow with interest briefings he gets on how the Israeli leader positions himself to the Republican-led Congress.