Obama at AIPAC – The Speech that Worked (in Theory)

On Sunday morning, I arrived in Washington, DC with a medium-sized group of high school students for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – the United States’ pro-Israel lobby.

My views don’t always correlate to those of AIPAC. I often find myself questioning the lobby’s stringent and unbreakable conservative nature. But AIPAC itself is officially nonpartisan and its primary goal is to defend and protect the State of Israel and its policies – during every and any administration.

As a result, severe apprehension gripped the conference’s attendees when it was announced that President Obama would be a keynote speaker. In the wake of recent events, there had been much build-up to the speech – irritation from the American Jewish community as a result of the President speech Thursday and his word choice regarding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (“pre-1967 borders”), excitement from my friends and classmates who eagerly awaited the unique opportunity to hear their President speak, and my unwavering anxiety and concern at the prospect of a room full of ten-thousand Jews hissing or booing at the Leader of the Free World.

Before Obama emerged on the garish AIPAC stage, a friend and I decided to make a bet on the language the President would use. “He’ll say ‘1967’,” my friend told me. “He’ll stick to the same language.” I was less sure. I told him that I thought Obama was at AIPAC to appease the Jewish community, to make up for Thursday’s speech, or to backpedal on the words he had chosen. The anxiety grew thicker – I could almost feel it in the air.

President Obama delivered an eloquent and meticulous address. As he approached the podium, he was met with gracious respect and cautious appreciation. He began by acknowledging universal truths about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the kind of statements thats the American Jewish community eats up like a fresh batch of cookies.

“A strong and secure Israel is in the national security interest of United States,” he said – and there was applause. He went on. “America’s commitment to Israel’s security also flows from a deeper place – and that’s the values we share.” More applause. Then, he asserted that he has “made the security of Israel a priority.” And, of course, more applause.

But once he’d warmed up the crowd, he cut to the chase. With absolute intrepidity and unmitigated integrity, Obama reaffirmed what he had defined as United States policy on Thursday: the 1967 borders of Israel should serve as a guideline for peace negotiations.

And the applause waned. But this time – during this speech – it was clear that the President had learned from his mistakes. He told the AIPAC audience that those who had reacted radically to his previous statement hadn’t been fully listening. “There was nothing particularly original in my proposal,” he said. “This basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties.”He asked the audience to listen to his proposal in context. He clarified that he didn’t only wish for Israel to revert back to previous borders, but that he believed that “mutually agreed upon swaps” were necessary.

The speech was a statement about the President’s resolve: it didn’t matter to whom he was speaking. He was there to deliver a message. It was clear that he knew that those who disagree or doubt him will never agree and will always doubt him. But “if there’s a controversy,” he affirmed, referring to his ‘1967’ statement “then, it’s not based in substance.” He did not appease the American Jewish community. He did not backpedal upon established US policy. With candor, with truth, and with poise, he stood before an unjustifiably irate crowd and proved exactly why their anger was groundless.