Obama's advice to Israel amounts to "toughen up"

President Barack Obama was supposedly trying to soothe tensions when he spoke Sunday to Washington’s most-powerful pro-Israel lobby group — but he didn’t back off his suggestion that peace talks with the Palestinians should begin with the assumption of Israel’s 1967 borders, the assertion that so angered Israel supporters last week.

“Since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what ‘1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps’ means,” Obama said in a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “By definition, it means the parties themselves — Israelis and Palestinians — will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.”

That’s an equivocation if ever I’ve heard one. But no surprise, the president’s confusing clarification doesn’t really change his position. He still means what he said Thursday. Here’s what he said later in the speech:

Ultimately, however, it is the right and responsibility of the Israeli government to make the hard choices that are necessary to protect a Jewish and democratic state for which so many generations have sacrificed. And as a friend of Israel, I am committed to doing our part to see that this goal is realized, while calling not just on Israel, but on the Palestinians, the Arab States and the international community to join us in that effort. Because the burden of making hard choices must not be Israel’s alone.

In the president’s mind, the burden to make peace falls “ultimately” on Israel. He says it is Israel’s “right and responsibility” to make “the hard choices” — not Palestinians’. He pays lip service to the idea of joint responsibility when he calls on Palestinians and the international community to aid in the effort to protect Israel — but the exhortation to be the bigger party, to toughen up, to come to the negotiating table with 1967 as the starting point, is to Israel.

No, the president’s speech Sunday doesn’t change what he said Thursday — and he doesn’t want it to. Headlines say he wants to soothe tensions with Israel — but he really wants to soothe tensions with the voting public. He admitted as much Sunday.

“I know very well that the easy thing to do, particularly for a president preparing for reelection, is to avoid any controversy,” he said. “If there’s a controversy … it’s not based in substance. What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately. I have done so because we cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace.”

Maybe so. But in diplomacy, the difference between “public” and “private” should actually mean something — and a position of strength in negotiations could presumably be undermined by making public something private.

While Obama addressed AIPAC, Israeli protesters gathered in Tel Aviv and outside the embassy in Washington with banners that read, “Israel won’t commit suicide.”

Other smaller signs read: “Israel can’t be divided,” “Obama change your mind,” and “No, to the Auschwitz lines of 1949.”

Although [the protesters] had not yet heard Obama speak, they were reacting [to] a statement that he made in his Middle East speech last week, that a two-state solution would be based on the pre-1967 border.

The activists were not mollified by the facts that Obama stated on Thursday – and again on Sunday – that Israel’s border would not be exactly on the ’67 line, because it would include land swaps.

The notion that the ’67 borders would be the basis for negotiations was enough to send them out to the street.

Obama’s AIPAC speech only further justified the protests.

Update: This post originally said “Palestine” where it now says “Palestinians.” Thanks to “Emperor Norton” for pointing out how that was misleading.