Will President Obama Speak at J Street?

Speculation abounds that President Obama may refocus his attention, during the final year of his presidency, on the failed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Observers now wonder where and when?

Election year initiatives are typically fraught with complications — in a world of complicated issues, Israel and the Middle East play in a league of their own. Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined an invitation to meet with President Obama at the White House prior to AIPAC’s Policy Conference. The official reason was Netanyahu’s desire to avoid interfering in U.S. elections by meeting with any of the presidential hopefuls addressing AIPAC.

The two leaders are in midst of negotiating a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) security package. Gaps remain (The U.S. is offering $3.4 billion of annual aid, while Israel seeks $5 billion) and could have contributed to Netanyahu postponing a visit until an agreement can be signed in-person. But a WSJ report on March 7 pointed to another source of tension: an American administration discussing new ideas to revive peace talks before Obama leaves office, and an Israeli Prime Minister fearing an Oval Office ambush.

According to Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat who participated in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations following the Camp David summit in 2000, there’s no doubt that at some point between now and January 2017, Obama will seek to outline his own version of the Bill Clinton parameters before leaving office.

One opportunity currently being discussed, according to a half dozen insiders interviewed for this story, is the upcoming J Street National Gala on April 18 in Washington, D.C. Whether the President will take the opportunity to address a group closely aligned with his administration’s policies — that prides itself on being Obama’s ‘blocking back’ in Congress — has yet to be confirmed.

J Street spokeswoman Jessica Rosenblum did confirm to Jewish Insider that the group reached out to the White House and eagerly awaits a decision on which administration official will keynote the Gala. Vice President Joe Biden and WH Chief of Staff Denis McDonough have addressed J Street’s annual conference in prior years.

As detailed in Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent article on ‘The Obama Doctrine’, the President shows little interest, and perhaps a strong dislike of the D.C. foreign policy establishment. The opportunity to elevate J Street with a presidential address may be too great to pass up during the final year in office.

“I do know that the president is seriously considering making a major speech and presenting, what we call for a lack of a better term, the Obama parameters,” Pinkas told Jewish Insider. “I don’t know for a fact he would want to do this as early as April, but he could surprise us. But that said, he’s the president. He has every podium and every opportunity to do whatever he wants.”

Knesset Member Michael Oren (Kulanu), who served as Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. (2009-2013) and has since been critical of the President’s handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship, told Jewish Insider in a phone interview, “It’s a possibility. I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility.”

“I know that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is close to his heart,” Oren explained. “If he can do anything on the diplomatic sphere, he is going to do it.”

Others were more dismissive, noting the challenge this would present to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton as she seeks to make additional inroads in a pro-Israel community weary of Donald Trump.

Aaron David Miller, an American Middle East analyst and Vice President for New Initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says there is no way Obama goes to J Street – or unveils anything prior the general election in the fall – that could potentially complicate Hillary Clinton’s White House bid.

“Why the President would go to J Street, given the nature of the relationship that exists right now, given the fact that he wants to elect her to succeed it, why would he want to complicate her life?” Miller told Jewish Insider in a phone interview. “I’m not sure it’s that much of a priority, and frankly, if he went to J Street and gave a pro-peace process speech it would probably just increase the gap between his words on one hand and what he was prepared to do on the other.”

Miller maintained that Obama would consider Hillary Clinton’s campaign before taking such a step. “Not since 1988 has a two-term president passed party control to a member of the same party,” he asserted. “That’s really important if he could manage to do that. That would mean between now and November trying to do things that don’t embarrass her, giving the Republican’s all kinds of ammunition and make life hard for her. Going to J Street, in my judgment, is just a needless aggravation. I don’t understand what it would achieve.”

While agreeing that such a speech could complicate matters for Clinton, Pinkas raised the possibility that Obama would outline his vision only once the MOU is signed, minimizing the risk to Clinton. “Once he signs the MOU, which will be worth anything between $3.6 and $4.1 billion annually, he could say ‘I just provided Israel’s security with an enhancement package that will support Israel. I care about Israel’s security. But! Israel must remain a Jewish democracy. I care about Israel losing its character,’” Pinkas explained. “Once he has the MOU in his pockets, you can’t really attack him. It will also make Hillary Clinton’s case easier.”

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