Obama at AIPAC: Should Bibi stay or should he go?


I’ve heard the same rumors Politico’s Ben Smith has: President Obama will address AIPAC on Sunday:

President Obama is expected to address the giant pro-Israel group AIPAC’s annual policy conference next Sunday, at a moment of uncertainty over America’s role in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict after its policy of two years appears to have stalled out.

I don’t think this news is going down well at the official residence on Rehov Ben Maimon Balfour in Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to be here Friday to meet with Obama and then to address AIPAC and Congress next week. As of Monday, that’s going ahead, although a year ago a crisis similar to the Nakba day riots — the Gaza aid flotilla — ended up upending his plans for a DC visit.

That sets up a question, considering how he has described the most recent events as an existential threat: Should he stay in Israel to handle the crisis, or should he come to Washington?

Here’s the calculus:

Obama and Netanyahu should be allies, but effectively lead competing parties, at least when it comes to the constituencies that care about the Middle East.

They have substantively different platforms: Netanyahu does not perceive a partner for peace, and wants to manage the conflict; Obama does, and wants to resolve it.

The Palestinians have done more recently to make Netanyahu’s case, first by refusing to negotiate with Israel, then through a union with Hamas.

Netanyahu was going to leverage this advantage next week with a speech to Congress that would emphasize the need to remove terrorism as a prerequisite for making peace. The pact with Hamas all but releived him of pressure to come up with a new plan for talks.

The killing of Osama bin Laden would also seem to reinforce his "terrorism first" prioritizing, except that it also portends a major problem for Netanyahu, at least through the filter of his political rivalry with Obama: It allows Obama to co-opt that very message. The president, after all, made the decision to go ahead with the operation.

And the White House seems determined to keep this ball in its court. The national security adviser, Tom Donilon, made the bin Laden killing the centerpiece of his speech Thursday to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a group I like to dub "AIPAC with intellectual curiosity." Donilon barely mentioned Israel-Palestine.

Not only that, but I had heard that if Obama does not make the AIPAC speech, his preferred proxy would have been Leon Panetta, the CIA director who managed the bin Laden op and who is set to become defense secretary. It’s a proxy that, together with Donilon’s speech, suggests the message Obama wants to get across to the pro-Israel community is "You want tough on terrorism? Look no further. And Bibi — get in line."

Now: couple that with the speech Obama is slated to give on Thursday that would link his tough posture on terrorism to the "Arab Spring;"

Subtract the fact that Netanyahu has yet to emerge with an overarching strategy of how to cope with said "Arab Spring;"

And Netanyahu is caught in a Hobson’s choice. Don’t come to AIPAC, and leave the field open to Obama; do come, and reinforce the perception that he has outmaneuvered you.

That matters because, while Obama seems to have set aside for now his ambitions for renewed negotiations, they are likely to arise again this summer, ahead of the U.N. General Assembly vote on recognizing Palestine. And if this momentum keeps up, he may well accrue leverage to push Israel back to the table, on terms Netanyahu may not love. There will be video of a packed AIPAC convention cheering as Obama says he will not brook terrorism. Believe me when I say the White House and the Obama campaign will make sure this video is viral.

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