I was wrong. I thought it made little sense for President Obama to deliver a speech to the AIPAC policy conference, because he'd lose points globally if all he did was pander, and he'd face a firestorm at home if he told the truth and offered up a little tough love. Plus, I thought it was a little demeaning for a sitting president to appear in front of any foreign policy lobbying group.
But Obama was cleverer than that, which is one of the countless reasons why he is president and I am not. Instead of choosing between pandering and speaking truth to power, he did both.
Specifically, he offered up the usual bromides about shared values and ironclad commitments, and put down various markers about the U.N. vote and Hamas and security that were obviously intended to defuse suspicions. He also used the opportunity to expose how his critics-including Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu-had deliberately mischaracterized what he had said in his speech at the State Department last Thursday, especially his reference to the 1967 borders as a baseline for negotiations.
But the important part of the speech was when he told AIPAC what everyone knows: Israel and its die-hard supporters here in the United States have a choice. Down one road is a viable two-state solution that will guarantee Israel's democratic and Jewish character, satisfy Palestinian national aspirations, remove the stigma of looming apartheid, turn the 2007 Arab Peace Plan into a reality and ensure Israel's acceptance in the region, facilitate efforts to contain Iran, and ultimately preserve the Zionist dream. Down another road lies the folly of a "greater Israel," in which a minority Jewish population tries to permanently subjugate an eventual Arab majority, thereby guaranteeing endless conflict, accelerating the gradual delegitimization of Israel in the eyes of the rest of the world, handing Iran a potent wedge issue, and making the United States look deeply hypocritical whenever it talks about self-determination and human rights.
The speech also tells you how much Obama has learned since taking office. After being repeatedly humiliated by Netanyahu and the lobby ever since the June 2009 Cairo speech, Obama has learned that he can't take them on directly. By necessity, therefore, he's now relying on the indirect approach. His strategy is to keep pointing out what is palpably obvious: the alternative that Netanyahu and AIPAC propose is simply not going to work, and the costs of trying to pursue it will only increase with time. And because this argument has the merit of being true, more and more people are going to be convinced by it.
It would be better, of course, if a great power like the United States could use its considerable leverage directly, in order to bring the parties to an agreement. Indeed, it would have been far, far better had the U.S. done so during the Oslo peace process, instead of acting like "Israel's lawyer." But given political realities in the region and the lobby's continued influence here in the United States, what Obama did yesterday was probably the best one could hope for. I doubt it will be enough, but it was better than I expected.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.