Editor’s note: Former “60 Minutes” producer Barry Lando imagines what the president might have said to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
My fellow Americans, I could say it is an honor to speak again before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. I could also dish out the usual rhetoric you expect from American political leaders of both parties—an emotional, iron-clad guarantee to maintain America’s undying support for Israel, the embattled outpost of democracy, and so on and on and on, to great applause.
But, as befits a conversation among longtime friends, I’d rather be frank.
As we all know, the reason I’m here is because you are the most powerful lobby in Washington. The mightiest senators and House members live in terror of your disapproval, and your support will be a key factor in the coming presidential elections.
That power has brought you innumerable victories. Though Israel is one of the smallest nations, altogether it has received more foreign aid from the United States than any other country since World War II. Though we condemn Iran’s nuclear program, we still officially ignore the fact that Israel has had the bomb for more than 40 years.
Our leaders have gone along with the fiction that Israel is somehow a key strategic asset for the U.S. in the Middle East, when, in fact, the opposite is true. Our unwavering support of Israel has won us the hostility of much of the Muslim world.
But that’s the past. Today, the U.S. and Israel face huge new challenges in the Middle East. And I have decided that provoking your disapproval is a risk I must take, for the sake of America as well as Israel.
We can no longer afford to confuse supporting the state of Israel with supporting the policies of the leaders who control the Israeli government at a particular time. The interests of the two are not necessarily the same—particularly when, in my view and the view of many Israelis, those policies undermine the long-term security of Israel.
Indeed, within the American Jewish community itself there are new lobbying groups, such as J Street, that are highly critical of Israel’s current leaders and make it clear that AIPAC may not represent the consensus of American Jews.
As I have said, the government of Israel can no longer put off serious negotiations with the Palestinians. Population growth and the current uprisings sweeping the region are certain to work against Israel’s long-run security.
Unfortunately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it more than clear that his government has no real interest in taking the steps needed to convince the Palestinians that negotiations would be worth their while. This is not just me saying this. The prime minister’s political opponents and important Israeli commentators are saying it as well.
Therefore, as president of the United States—of all Americans—I am today announcing a change in policy toward the Middle East. I have decided that we will no longer stand in the way of a United Nations resolution next September to recognize the existence of a Palestinian state. I realize that resolution will not actually create a state—but it may be the best way to start the process.
I am also calling once again on the government of Israel to cease the construction of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. I made that same request not long after I became president but I backed down when Prime Minister Netanyahu refused. I was wrong to back down. It will not happen again.
The Israeli government charges that Hamas is a terrorist organization. It is, and we have labeled it as such. I call upon Hamas to reconsider its aims if it truly wants to achieve a settlement with Israel.
On the other hand, other violent groups once labeled terrorist organizations—such as the Irish Republican Army—changed their tactics amid the lure of peace negotiations. Indeed, at one time in their careers two of Israel’s most renowned leaders—Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir—were condemned as terrorists.
I realize this new policy may well subject me to a barrage of the most virulent political attacks—from right-wing TV talk shows to lurid ads filling our media to congressional resolutions. It will be charged that all along I—Barack Hussein Obama—have been secretly plotting with radical Islam to destroy Israel—and after Israel, the United States.
They will say, of course, that I am anti-Semitic—a charge that is leveled these days against any prominent individual who criticizes the current conservative government of Israel. An irony, since—as I’ve said—some of the strongest attacks on Israel’s current policies come from Israeli Jewish commentators and politicians themselves.
I understand the emotional storm that is roiling this audience right now—I can hear the boos and catcalls. I can feel your enormous upset. But I ask you, members of AIPAC, before you and your allies start an attack against me in the media and in the Congress and in communities across the country, by unleashing such a massive campaign isn’t there a danger you would demonstrate to the American people exactly the point I have been making in this speech? That is, the extent to which your lobby has distorted the workings of our democratic system.
In the end, your attempt to defeat my desire to pursue a policy that is in the interests of all Americans—as well as the state of Israel—could lead to your own downfall.
Think about it. And thanks for letting me talk.
Barry M. Lando spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative producer with “60 Minutes.” He has produced numerous articles, a documentary and a book, “Web of Deceit,” about Iraq. Lando is finishing a novel, “The Watchman’s File.”
White House / Pete Souza
President Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu converse near the Oval Office during a visit by the Israeli prime minister last week.