NPR logo Obama On Israel's Borders: More Impact On U.S. Politics Than Mideast?

Obama On Israel's Borders: More Impact On U.S. Politics Than Mideast?

President Obama clarified his controversial remarks at AIPAC's annual meeting, Sunday, May 22, 2011. Jose Luis Magana/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Jose Luis Magana/AP

President Obama clarified his controversial remarks at AIPAC's annual meeting, Sunday, May 22, 2011.

Jose Luis Magana/AP

If President Obama could get a do-over on his Arab Spring speech, would he still restate precisely his line about Israel's 1967 borders (with agreed land swaps!) being the starting point for renewed talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators?

From a purely political point of view it seems unlikely.

The president created an unnecessary domestic political firestorm surrounding his Mideast policy where there hadn't been a raging issue before his speech.

That's a politically curious move, leading to the suspicion that the president didn't foresee what his words would spark.

That perhaps explains the lack of a public trial balloon in the days before the speech, the tactic presidents use to test potentially combustible ideas before they actually utter them.

He gave his Republican opponents a rallying point which they clearly intend to exploit.

Besides firing up their evangelical Christians in the GOP political base who see supporting Israel as a religious duty, Obama's words raised GOP hopes that they'll be able to draw away some of his sizable support with Jewish voters.

The president got nearly 80 percent of those voters in 2008 and in 2012 they could play a key role in electoral vote-rich states, especially Florida.

And even Republicans can't get significantly more Jewish voters to support its candidates, journalists report that Republican fundraisers hope to have success diverting some major donors away from Democrats.

Meanwhile, Obama provided a foreign leader he has a chilly relationship with, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a perfect foil which the conservative premier used to great effect Tuesday with a rousing, defiant speech before a joint meeting of Congress.

Further, the president wound up creating a divide in his own party. Important Democrats like Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), the Senate majority leader, and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the House minority whip, making a show of parting company with him over his 1967-line remark.

For Reid who is trying to hang onto a narrow Senate majority, the president's remarks clearly are a threat to that goal. So distancing himself from Obama makes political sense.

Indeed, if there is a political upside for congressional Democrats, it's that the president has handed them an issue which they can use to show how they differ from him.

That could come in handy in those instances when the president is more a drag than a help on their election prospects in their districts or states.

In short, he prepared the ground for potential domestic political damage, all for an uncertain foreign policy payoff.

Substantive talks between Israel and Palestinians seemed far off before the speech and they still do. Ironically, that sentence could have more of an impact on U.S. domestic politics than realities in the Mideast.

Some analysts believe the president through his border comment was trying to head off a Palestinian effort at getting the UN to pass a statehood resolution later this year. It was Obama's attempt to slow momentum for such a resolution which would keep the administration from exercising its Security Council veto, a move that obviously wouldn't play well on the Arab street.

But there was clearly a domestic political cost, too. Just how high it will be remains to be seen.

After the success in killing Osama bin Laden, Obama's Arab Spring speech was viewed as a continuation of his victory lap.

But this is an instance where he many see him as having stumbled as he threw up his hands in victory.