Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) was one of a handful of Democrats sharply critical of President Obama’s speech Thursday.
I saw him in the hall after Obama’s speech this morning to AIPAC and asked him what he thought.
He liked what he called the change in emphasis.
He reiterated, first of all, that there was much that he did like in the first speech, notably its tough criticism of Syria (Engel coauthored the 2003 act Obama is now using to sanction Syria) and the president’s emphatic recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
That said, he was still concerned at Obama’s commitment to negotiating on the basis of the 1967 lines. "I don’t like starting with the armistice lines," he told me.
More consequentially, Engel appears one of the few Congress members who gets that what now appears as nuance, when it comes to dealing with a government that has Hamas backing, could actually represent a real rift between the Obama administration on one side and Israel and Congress on the other.
The president, once again, was careful not to count out working with such a government, more in what he did not say than in what he did:
The recent agreement between Fatah and Hamas poses an enormous obstacle to peace. No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction. We will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, rejecting violence, and adhering to all existing agreements.
There is nothing in there about not negotiating with a government that has Hamas’ backing, period, yet that is precisely what the Netanyahu administration and its friends (like Engel) in Congress want to hear.
That left Engel unhappy: "It’s not a matter of how to work it out, it’s a matter of ‘No.’"
I’ve written elsewhere about how Obama could work around existing laws, and negotiate with a government of technocrats that does not include Hamas but has its backing.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip, got big applause in his speech for this formulation:
We will not fund a government that fails to accept previous agreements and recognize the Jewish State of Israel’s right to exist.
That still leaves open the possibilithy of funding a P.A. government that has Hamas’ backing — but does not include its members in its Cabinet. A senior administration official confirmed to me that the administration was still in wait and see mode when it comes to assessing whether to work with the Palestinian Authority, post-pact.
Engel was otherwise happy with Obama’s changes of emphasis, especially regarding his commitment to Israel’s security.
"It was important he come to this group," he said. "He didn’t backtrack, but he was respectful, not confrontational or belligerent."