It looked like President Obama was walking into the lion’s den Sunday when he addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee just days after he stirred up controversy by suggesting using Israel’s 1967 borders—with mutually agreed-upon land swaps—as the basis for negotiations with Palestinians.
After all, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged from a two-hour Oval Office meeting on Friday calling the 1967 borders “indefensible.”
But Obama, who reiterated his support for Israel and its security multiple times in Sunday’s speech, received a warm welcome from the influential group that lobbies on behalf of Israeli interests. The AIPAC crowd applauded the president throughout his speech, even laughing briefly when he acknowledged the controversy his remarks created.
“Even while we may at times disagree, as friends sometimes will, the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable, and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad,” Obama said.
Obama, who stood by his plan, stressed that Israelis and Palestinians would have to agree on land swaps that would establish secure and recognizable borders for both states while taking into account demographic shifts over the last four decades.
“It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides,” Obama said. “The ultimate goal is two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people.”
As it turned out, Obama’s harshest critics were not the AIPAC members who gathered at Washington’s convention center Sunday morning. Rather, the toughest criticisms came from Republicans who used the Sunday talk shows to blast Obama, arguing that the proposal could ultimately hurt the stalled negotiations.
Speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation shortly before the president’s speech at AIPAC, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called Obama’s remarks last week a “disaster” and his proposal “extraordinarily dangerous.”
Meanwhile, House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said Obama made a “colossal mistake” by saying publicly his plan to use the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations. “I think it’s a bad strategy to try to negotiate in public,” Rogers said on CNN’s State of the Union.
Even Rogers’s Democratic counterpart on the intelligence panel, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, gave only tepid support to the plan. Ruppersberger said he assumes the president’s intention is to jump-start peace talks, but he acknowledged that it has “caused great concern among my constituents in the Jewish community.”
Obama said he was not surprised by the controversy. And in a nod to the 2012 presidential elections, he acknowledged the potential political pitfalls of his plan.
“I know very well that the easy thing to do, particularly for a president preparing for reelection, is to avoid any controversy,” he said. “But as I said to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I believe that the current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination. I also believe that real friends talk openly and honestly with one another.”