Obama Tames the Lion’s Den

For me, Obama’s speech at AIPAC yesterday was on the same level of rhetorical and political brilliance as his much-vaunted 2008 “race speech.”  I’m really not sure quite how he did it, but he managed to strike an impossibly perfect balance between statements of political necessity:

The bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad.

hard-nosed reality:

There’s 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 — in Latin America, in Asia, and in Europe.  And that impatience is growing, and it’s already manifesting itself in capitals around the world.

political courage:

I know very well that the easy thing to do, particularly for a President preparing for reelection, is to avoid any controversy.  I don’t need Rahm to tell me that.  Don’t need Axelrod to tell me that.  But I said to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I believe that the current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination.

and moral conviction:

The Talmud teaches us that, “So long as a person still has life, they should never abandon faith.”  And that lesson seems especially fitting today.

For so long as there are those across the Middle East and beyond who are standing up for the legitimate rights and freedoms which have been denied by their governments, the United States will never abandon our support for those rights that are universal.

And all this while repeatedly bringing the AIPAC audience to their feet in applause.


If I had any doubts about the power of this one speech, the reaction of the leftist blogosphere – where the criticism of Obama’s efforts in Israel/Palestine has been witheringly critical of late – was the ultimate indicator.

Here’s Phil Weiss:

Today’s speech by Barack Obama to AIPAC was a historic speech, maybe the most remarkable speech he has ever given. For a masked and calculating man, it was incredibly sincere. For just below the politically-hogtied phrases and praises for the Israel lobby that controls his future, it was filled with rage. When he spoke over and over of a Jewish democratic state and then said that the world was changing, and spoke about that Jewish state upholding universal values that Americans also share, I heard vicious irony: You want a religious state, you have the power to demand it of me, because you are the Israel lobby, well time is running out on you.

MJ Rosenberg:

Yes, he gave AIPAC the usual Israel boilerplate. He’ll veto a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, etc. But all that stuff is standard and subject to change as situations change. However, the overarching message was the necessity for two states and the unsustainability of the occupation.

And AIPAC applauded. Strongly.

The President did a masterful job. The neocons are outraged. And I expect that Netanyahu, seeing AIPAC’s reaction to their President, will cut his losses and back down.

Bravo, Mr. President. You even brought out the best in AIPAC.

Even Ali Abunimah, in a post that otherwise excoriated US policy in Israel/Palestine, grudgingly admitted that Obama’s speech contained “a number of interesting elements” and “a hard-headed realism about the deep trouble Israel is in.”

Now, however, the real test begins. I’ve made no secret that I believe we’ve passed the point of no return on a two state solution – and I continue to fear that for all of his political courage, Obama’s efforts are arriving too late. As I write, Israel’s settlement juggernaut continues apace, making a mockery of Obama’s stated hope for a “sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state.”  Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s political strategy is patently obvious: keep building settlements, stall Obama as long as possible, cozy up to his personal congressional friends, and do what he can to stoke the fires for a Republican victory in 2012 that will make all this unpleasantness just go away.

No matter how impossible the odds, however, I remain in awe of Obama’s speech, if only that he proved a sitting President does not need to roll over for the Israel Lobby. Could we venture to hope that AIPAC’S financially-driven stranglehold on American foreign policy, its craven bullying of politicians, and its “Israel right or wrong” myopia is now being exposed for what it really and truly is?

Click on the clip above for the entire speech. The good stuff begins at about 14:00 or so.

5 thoughts on “Obama Tames the Lion’s Den

  1. Thomas

    Rabbi –

    i agree with your judgement concerning the feasibility of a two-state solution. However, the answer to you (and myself) is given already by a citation – which, interestingly, is a multiple layer citation: you cite Obama who cites the Talmud -:

    >>The Talmud teaches us that, “So long as a person still has life, they should never abandon faith.” And that lesson seems especially fitting today.<<

    Let's hope – without hope there is no life.

  2. Ismail

    I think as an older Palestinian man who has spent all my life advocating for a two state Peace I have to admit that this solution is no longer feasible or can be sustained. I have admit that this dream is off the table even if Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas were to miraculously agree today to divide the country between the two people. The Arab spring had started it had changed so many held notions in politics and economy that the so called experts were caught like deer in lights of an incoming bullet train. Israel and the PLO had many chances to build the two state solutions and have failed.

    A new generation of politicians are speaking of divine rights for a Jewish state and on the other side the inalienable historic and religious rights of return. All the while the settlements are being built and racial laws are passed to ethnically cleanse the Jewish state of its indigenous Muslims and Christians.

    I think Israel and the Palestinian are awaiting a new youth generation to hit the street in civil disobedience and insist on either a change in the old guard or accomplish a real Peace that respects the specificity of each side while respecting the democratic rights of the other. A swiss cantonal system is a good example , one state with different independent cantons: some for the Orthodox Jews, one for the Orthodox Muslims , one for the born again Christians and few other for the secular of all religions and those religious people who believe in interfaith dialogue .

    My grandfather was a Palestinian land owner with many farm help who were devout Jews. My father worked for Jewish employers later and we all got along fine, especially with the Iraqi Jews who have attended out weddings and birthdays and we attended theirs. It can be done if we can keep the extremists out of the picture. What unifies the Jews and the Muslims is by far greater than what separates them and they have gotten along for thousands of years. I hope I will see that sate of affair prevalent in the Middle East again before I get to meet my Creator.


  3. Rachel Barenblat

    Thanks for this post and for this cogent explication of what Obama said and what some of its implications are.

    I too fear that we’ve passed the point where a two-state solution would really have been feasible, and yet it is still the outcome for which I continue to hope.

    1. Eric Selinger

      Maybe it’s just me, but when I hear “two state solution” these days, I can’t help but hear “separate-but-equal state solution.” Which is to say, whatever the actual outcome will be (over which I have no influence whatsoever), I may be past the point where that is the outcome that most moves or inspires me.


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