For those concerned with the future of Israel, there was only one topic of conversation this week: President Barack Obama’s Middle East speech at the State Department and reactions to it.
The speech’s bombshell was the president’s statement of his support of the 1967 borders as the demarcation between Israel and Palestine. His exact words were, “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.”
This would include returning to borders which were nine miles wide at Israel’s narrowest point — parameters Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “indefensible.”
No other president has come so close to articulating the Palestinian negotiating position. Obama’s position was almost universally attacked, as Mitt Romney put it, as throwing America’s closest ally and the only democracy in the Middle East “under the bus.”
Yet there were those who supported the president’s position. After the president’s speech, ADL issued a release stating, “We support the president’s vision of a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement with strong security provisions for Israel, and a non-militarized Palestinian state.” Does that include Obama’s vision of the settlement being based on the 1967 borders?
In a press release, the National Jewish Democratic Council praised the president’s “powerful address…including his strong support for Israel and the pragmatic approach he put forth to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
In his defense, it could be argued that Obama was giving the Palestinians the sleeves off his vest. As a lawyer, his Middle East speech contained what could be construed as escape clauses.
One such clause had to do with Hamas: “[T]he recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel — how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?”
Another clause had to do with ultimate issues other than borders: “Two wrenching and emotional issues remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.” As to the latter, the Nakba Day demonstrations and pronouncements made it abundantly clear that the new, non-negotiable demand of the Palestinians was the right of return.
Based on demographics, the right of return would, in short time, make Israel a country with a Palestinian majority. The once-Jewish State of Israel could then be eradicated, by plebiscite, in favor of a Muslim Palestine.
Like his Cairo speech of reconciliation, Obama’s State Department speech was intended to “restart” the United States’ relations with the Muslim world. Like the Cairo speech, the State Department speech exhibited little knowledge of the history of the Middle East and of Israel and Jews in particular.
It linked the death of bin Laden, the Arab Spring, and Israel-Palestinian relations.
For months, the administration has been under pressure, much of it self-imposed, to jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Some outside the administration, notably The New York Times editorial page, demanded that the president present a Middle East peace plan of his own. Before the State Department speech, the rumors were that this would not happen. But it did, perhaps not in detail, but in concept.
The timing is suspect. Republican lawmakers invited Netanyahu to address Congress this week. Additionally, Netanyahu was to address the annual meeting of the formidable lobbying organization, AIPAC. If Bibi went first in defining the issues, the administration would be playing catch-up ball. The State Department speech and the president’s address to AIPAC put Obama in the offensive position.
Obama and Netanyahu are reported to have a rocky relationship. The State Department speech did nothing to improve it. After the White House meeting on May 20, The Wall Street Journal reported, “Netanyahu issued a rare public rebuke to a U.S. president in his own office on Friday, telling Barack Obama that Israel would never accept his proposal that it negotiate a peace deal based on borders that existed before the Six-Day War,” declaring those lines “indefensible.”
Netanyahu said, “The only peace that will endure is one that is based on reality…. We don’t have a lot of margin for error, because Mr. President, history will not give the Jewish people another chance.”
Speaking at AIPAC on Sunday, the president did not back down but sought to clarify his position by emphasizing the importance of negotiated land swaps. Linking unrest in Israel’s neighbors to his proposal, Obama said his peace plan was the best chance Israel had to avoid growing isolation.
Netanyahu spoke to AIPAC afterward. He again demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Challenging both the Palestinians and the administration, he said, “Peace requires reciprocity. It cannot be a one-way street in which only Israel makes concessions. Israel stands ready to make the compromises necessary for peace. But we expect the Palestinians to compromise as well. But one thing I will never compromise on is our security.”