Let’s not underestimate the influence Prime Minister Netanyahu had on President Obama at their White House meeting on May 20. In his frank, yet respectful, remarks before the cameras, in response to the President’s summary of their 90-minute meeting, the Prime Minister emphasized the “facts on the ground” that have become a bedrock of Israel’s security over the past 44 years. In his AIPAC address 48 hours later, the President repeated that very point as a foundation for any negotiations between the parties. It brought to mind George Washington’s historic guarantee to the members of Newport’s Touro Synagogue in 1790 of a government that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” a monumental phrase that echoed verbatim the words of Moses Seixas, the congregation’s leader, from his letter to the President just four days earlier.
For the most part, President Obama touched all the right buttons at AIPAC, strongly reaffirming the enduring friendship between America and its most faithful ally in the world, and recognizing Israel’s security needs that deserve to be supported.
But here’s where the President went wrong.
He told the gathering that his reference to the 1967 armistice lines, in his State Department address on May 19, had been misinterpreted and that the analyses should instead be focusing on his emphasis on negotiated land swaps, which would result in final borders that will no doubt bear little resemblance to the 1967 lines. Whether that interpretation will resonate in the Arab world remains to be seen. More important is that the 1967 lines — i.e., the cease-fire lines that had existed since Israel’s War of Independence ended in 1949 — were never a secure boundary for Israel. Over the course of those 18 years, while Egypt occupied the Palestinian territory of Gaza and Jordan occupied the Palestinian territory now known as the West Bank, there was anything but security for Israel. That insecurity abruptly terminated in June, 1967 in the wake of the disastrously ill-advised military campaign by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan to try to wipe out the 19-year-old Jewish state once and for all. The Green Line that has separated Israel from the Palestinian territories over the past 44 years represents the only secure, albeit imperfect, “border” Israel has had with those territories in its 63-year history.
That is not to say that Israel is not ready to make land swaps in the interest of peace. But the starting point for those negotiations must be the present, secure lines of demarcation, which were earned at the cost of much blood, and not the indefensible armistice lines of pre-war 1967. Efforts to roll back history to the status quo ante the Six-Day War were initiated by the Soviet Union as soon as that war ended. But as Abba Eban put it so aptly before the UN General Assembly on June 19, 1967, “the suggestion that everything goes back to where it was before 5 June is totally unacceptable…. To go back to the situation out of which the conflict arose would mean that all the conditions for renewed hostilities would be brought together again.”
Those words ring just as true today. President Obama may not remember them, but Prime Minister Netanyahu does.
Peter A. Berkowsky
Col., USAF (ret.)