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AIPAC 2014; Obama vs Netanyahu face-off

What a whirlwind of a week it has been.

What a whirlwind week it has been.

I think everyone was a little shocked and uncomfortable upon reading President Obama’s lengthy interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, as Israel’s Prime Minister sat unknowingly on a plane headed to the US Capital.

It started like this. Borrowing a proverb from the wise sage, Rabbi Hillel, the US President said outright that his message to Netanyahu will be this: “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr Prime Minister, then who?”

The US President continued with statements pertaining to the US-brokered peace talks that Goldberg went on to describe as “a veiled threat.”

Obama said frankly:

“If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time…If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”

While Obama went on to describe the US-Israel alliance as unshakable he made it clear that the US would soon be unable or unwilling to continue to successfully support Israel in forums of international governance.

The lengthy interview with the US President was most unconventional and controversial for two reasons. Firstly, while many of these views would have been unsurprising for Netanyahu, airing them in public as the PM sat on a plane headed to Washington for the 2014 AIPAC Conference, (attended by over 14,000 pro-Israel delegates) was sly and outright disrespectful to a visiting head of state. I’ll borrow a useful saying often recited by my European grandparents that puts it best; “it’s simply not the done thing.”

It is precisely this sentiment that TOI editor, David Horovitz, put forward with fervour this week:

“Reading what Obama had said Sunday must have come as quite a shock for Netanyahu — not because the president’s views were unfamiliar to him, but because the president had chosen to air them, in public, as his guest was on the way to meet him.”

However, when he addressed the crowd at AIPAC for over 45 minutes, Prime Minister Netanyahu did not hit back with direct attack or confrontation. He expressed the view of the Israeli government with passion, yet was poised and respectful. Prime Minister Netanyahu chose the high road and I believe it did him justice. You can watch Netanyahu’s exceptional address at AIPAChere.

Secondly, while Obama continued to profess the enduring, unshakable US-Israel alliance his interview remarks suggest that the two state leaders are on extremely different pages on most, if not all, core issues. What President Obama had to say about the escalating crisis in Syria, Egypt, Iran’s nuclear program and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict put him at direct odds with Netanyahu’s position. The Bloomberg interview is lengthy but undoubtedly worth the read.

So what did President Obama say that was so controversial and how does it compare to Netanyahu’s address? Well the facts speak for themselves…

President Abbas and the peace process:

Obama’s comments on continued settlement construction were most explosive. Linking this to Israel’s continued global isolation the President made it abundantly clear that the onus is on Netanyahu to make a deal with the ‘politically moderate’ Abbas.  When pushed by Goldberg to expand on Abbas’ credibility as a partner for peace, the President emphatically praised the PA leader’s commitment to “nonviolence and diplomatic efforts to resolve this issue.”

Interesting assessment, Mr President. This comes only weeks after Abbas told Friedman in an interview for the New York Times that he would not recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Period.

It is precisely this one-sided pressure that is so problematic, fostering a sense that no compromise is needed or expected from the Palestinian camp.

And that is exactly what Netanyahu shouted from the podium to a gathering sea of cheer and applause. Netanyahu said peace is Israel’s highest aspiration and that he is prepared “to make historic peace with our Palestinian neighbours.” Just as Israel is prepared to recognize a Palestinian state, he said, the Palestinians must do the same.

The acme of his address came in the form of a direct order: “President Abbas, recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”


It was perhaps the President’s take on Iran that showcased what most critics have describes as his extremely weak foreign policy. Distancing Iran from what he described as an irrational and untameable North Korea, Obama implied that Iran is in fact approachable.

“If you look at Iranian behaviour, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive. They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits. And that isn’t to say that they aren’t a theocracy that embraces all kinds of ideas that I find abhorrent, but they’re not North Korea. They are a large, powerful country that sees itself as an important player on the world stage, and I do not think has a suicide wish, and can respond to incentives.”

Netanyahu responded with his usual tirade: that a nuclear-armed Iran is the single greatest threat to global security. While Obama vaguely asserted that the US is committed to stopping Iran from possessing a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu differentiated between the ability to “have a weapon” and to “make the weapon.” He explained the dire threat of Iran being permitted to continue to enrich uranium and that the biggest mistake would be to follow the path of least resistance by easing pressure on the nuclear state.

“Pressure is what brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place,” he said. “Greater pressure on Iran will not make war more likely, it will make war less likely.”

To an enthusiastic crowd, much more embracing of him than any other of the key speakers, the Israeli PM said the phrase that has gone viral, “if it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, then it’s a nuclear duck…”

I bet the US President feels somewhat foolish issuing these views just days before a shipment of Iranian sponsored missiles was intercepted headed for Gaza. This challenges the notion that Iran is a reasonable state that “can respond to incentives.”

You can see foreign spokesperson, Mark Regev, speaking about the Iranian weapon seizure here.

In an interview with Bloomberg View talk show host Charlie Rose, Jeffrey Goldberg talked about his interview with the US President. He said that as the U.S.-brokered peace process comes to its self-prescribed end next month Obama’s rhetoric is becoming “less diplomatic” and “more specific.” Yes, specifically targeting Israel to make the next move with a partner that is increasingly hostile and violent.

In the interview President Obama described his US foreign policy as “restrained” and “thoughtful.” However, it seems that the terms ‘weak’ and ‘naive’ will likely be imprinted in the minds of most when it comes to reflecting on Obama’s foreign policy down the track.

When he hit the stage at the AIPAC conference the Israeli Prime Minister did us proud. Whether you agree with what he said or not (and I happen to think his speech hit the nail on the head) Netanyahu took the highroad. He did not get personal but opted for a firm, respectful address that was received with standing ovations and thunderous applause.

President Obama was right to bring the wise words of Rabbi Hillel into focus. However, it would have been more fitting to highlight the first part of the famous maxim: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Sadly, this is the creed that must continue to define Israel’s foreign policy and this week’s events prove this more than ever.

On a different note, this will be my final week writing for the ZFA as Emily will be back from maternity leave next week.

I would truly like to thank-you all for not only your readership, but also your correspondence, both good and bad. Receiving constant feedback shows that the community is engaging with the ideas we put forward and cares enough to challenge and debate issues at the core of modern Israel. This is central to our purpose at the ZFA and has made my role all the more challenging and inspiring.

I have learnt so much from so many of you and would love to stay in touch. Please feel free to touch base and email me at

Gabrielle Debinski
Media & Advocacy Director
Zionist Federation of Australia