Words matter: The president’s speeches on Israel

The New York Times’s headline on Monday, concerning President Obama’s speech on Israel the day before to the national pro-Israel organization AIPAC, read: 

“Obama Presses Israel to Make Hard Choices.” 

The story, written by Helene Cooper, began with an unusually non-factual, subjective characterization: “President Obama struck back at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel” in the Sunday American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) speech. The rest of the story reinforced the notion that Obama had not significantly changed his Sunday speech from the one he delivered the previous Thursday, May 19. 

The Washington Post’s headline on the same day reflected a 180-degree opposite interpretation: 
“Obama reiterates ‘ironclad’ support for Israel.” 

The Post’s reporter, Joby Warrick, wrote that Obama, far from “striking back,” had “sought to reassure Israel.”  

The Wall Street Journal agreed with the Post’s reporting that same Monday. 

Its headline: “Obama Shifts Tone on Israel Borders.” 

The two Journal reporters, Jay Solomon and Laura Meckler, described the Sunday AIPAC speech in the lead paragraph, in contrast to Cooper, as “trying to soften the impact” of the Thursday speech.

The facts support the Post’s and the Journal’s reporting. 

There were several material differences between the Thursday and Sunday speeches. But most noteworthy was the different context to the controversial reference to negotiations based on “1967 borders.”

In the earlier speech, Obama stated: “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are 
established for both states.” 

But on Sunday, May 22, Obama repeated the reference to 1967 lines and mutually agreed swaps, but added these words, which were inexplicably omitted from Cooper’s story in the Times:  “By definition, it means that the parties themselves — Israelis and Palestinians — will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.”

The key addition is the phrase “new demographic realities on the ground.” 

These are nearly identical words to those used by President George W. Bush in his April 2004 letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — that the finally negotiated borders in an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation must reflect “new realities on the ground, including already existing major population centers” (widely understood to be a reference to those West Bank Israeli settlements needed for Israel’s security).  

In other words, Obama had gone from a brand-new formulation on Thursday that no American president had ever stated before publicly — a fact that he explicitly acknowledged in his Sunday speech — to one that had been explicitly stated by Bush. 

I have no doubt that Obama is a sincere supporter of Israel and identifies with Israel’s strategic and moral value to the United States as a democracy that protects human rights, women’s rights, gay rights and the equal rights for its more than 1 million Israeli Arab citizens. I wrote in this space last year that Obama’s Cairo speech, while not perfect, was an important presidential effort to reach out to moderates in the Muslim world. 

I believe Obama’s error in the Thursday speech was a result of a misperception, as he stated the day after in the Oval Office alongside Netanyahu, causing him to minimize the significance of “some differences between us in the precise formulations and language.” 

But precise words matter to Israelis — especially words, or omitted words, about Israel’s future borders, which are so intrinsic to its special security requirements, given its size and the nature of its neighbors. To Israelis, such words are not just mere differences in “precise language” — they are matters of national survival. 

The fact is, the sighs of relief heard among thousands at the AIPAC conference when they heard Obama’s second speech on Sunday were for real, and for good reason. They were in recognition of Obama having made important mid-course corrections in his Sunday speech vs. the Thursday version.

And more credit to him for doing so. Better late than never.

Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which also specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.  He is the author of the book Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America.