By Daniel Luban
Reviewing this week’s AIPAC conference, The Weekly Standard‘s Michael Goldfarb writes:
As President Obama’s meeting with new Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu approaches, there will be tremendous pressure on both leaders to demonstrate that they can work together effectively. It was in that context that Joe Biden both assured the crowd at AIPAC this week of the administration’s commitment to Israeli security while also demanding that Israel “work for a two-state solution … not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow Palestinians freedom of movement.” Likewise, Netanyahu, in a video address to the conference, assured his American audience that he was committed to the two-state solution and the peace process.
As a cursory look at Netanyahu’s remarks will reveal, Bibi said no such thing. While maintaining that he was willing to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians, the Israeli prime minister pointedly made no mention of an eventual Palestinian state. In fact, the only mention of the word “state” in his speech came when he demanded Palestinian recognition of Israel as “the Jewish state” and “the nation-state of the Jewish people”. (He did not specify whether the Jewish state would include the West Bank, or, in Likudnik parlance, “Judea and Samaria”.)
That Goldfarb would distort Netanyahu’s remarks is not particularly notable; Goldfarb has not, after all, earned much of a reputation for intellectual integrity.* However, the distortion is indicative of how nervous he and other pro-Israel hardliners seem to be about the apparently widening rift between the U.S. and Israeli governments. Their nervousness was evident at this week’s AIPAC conference, where virtually everyone was eager to paper over differences between the two governments. Thoughts on this below.
The hardliners have clearly decided that directly criticizing Obama when he is so popular is a losing battle, so the conference was full of perfunctory expressions of support for the president’s diplomatic outreach to Iran (quickly followed by warnings that this outreach must have a short and hard end date) and similarly perfunctory calls for a two-state solution. AIPAC itself now officially supports a two-state solution — although this support tends to be so muted and buried so deep in organizational documents that is it unlikely that the average conference-goer was aware of the group’s position — which would seem to put them at odds with Netanyahu. However, AIPAC officials were eager to assure me that Netanyahu is also a two-state supporter, and is simply waiting for the right moment to go public with his position.
The AIPAC rank-and-file, on the other hand, appeared considerably less enthusiastic about ending the occupation than the group’s leadership professes to be. Joe Biden’s and John Kerry’s calls for a two-state solution and for halting settlement expansion were met primarily with stony silence from the crowd; the smattering of applause for these remarks sounded like it came almost entirely from the student sections.
Of course, it is quite possible that Netanyahu will accept the idea of a two-state solution in the near future, and there are good reasons not to attach too much significance to these verbal formulations. Whether Netanyahu claims to want to end the occupation is less important than whether he is willing to take any concrete steps toward this goal. Similarly, AIPAC’s nominal support for two states is, to my mind, less important than the fact that its concrete proposals and priorities look very much like Netanyahu’s.
Nevertheless, the fact that the hardliners feel the need to go through these contortions is revealing of the current political mood. It suggests, as Dan Fleshler wrote today, that the Israel lobby is feeling very nervous about being out of step with the Obama administration.
* It is worth noting that the same post also mischaracterizes the recent remarks made by Robert Gates in Egypt. Gates did not say, as Goldfarb claims, that U.S. diplomacy with Iran had a very remote chance of producing a “favorable outcome”. Rather, he said that diplomacy had a very remote chance of producing a “grand bargain” that would reshape the entire strategic landscape of the region — a very different claim.