President Obama’s speech yesterday at the State Department not only failed to reset American Middle East Policy on stronger and more thoughtful footing, but by utilizing new terminology vis-à-vis the border issues between Israel and the Palestinians has set back the prospects for peace.
Following the Six Day War in 1967, the UN issued Resolution 242 calling for, “Secure and Recognized borders.” Since, Israeli negotiations have been based on the post- ’67 de facto border. Every Israeli Prime Minister, from the left to the right, has sought to create a border with a future Palestinian State that leaves Israeli’s reasonably safe from terror and attacks; particularly given Israel’s narrow 14 mile waist.
Based on first-hand accounts, the U.S. plan offered by Clinton and endorsed by Barak in 2000 would have given the Palestinians 97 percent of a contiguous West Bank following Israeli withdraw from 63 settlements, a land-link between The Gaza Strip and The West Bank, a capital of the new state in East Jerusalem, and return of refugees to the Palestinian state with at least $30 billion to help settle them. The Palestinians would control their holy places, and receive access to desalinization plants to ensure adequate water. Israeli would retain sovereignty over the Western Wall while the Palestinians would gain sovereignty over the Temple Mount above. Three IDF early warning stations would remain in the Jordan Valley for 6 years following the agreement.
According to both US and Palestinian negotiators, Arafat’s rejected this plan for reasons completely unrelated to the proposed border. The right of return, denial of Jewish history, and Arafat’s own complex psychology account for most of the reasons provided. At no time during the negotiations of 2000 and early 2001 did any American negotiator base border discussions on, “pre-1967 borders.”
Continuing to April 2004, President Bush provided then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a letter summarizing US policy regarding the conflict that read in part, “The United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to Israel’s security, including secure, defensible borders.” This letter, which provided Israel with the confidence to unilaterally withdrawal from Gaza in August of 2005, received the support of both houses of Congress.
If President Obama thinks is he is saying the same as Presidents Bush and Clinton, as well as previous US Administrations, he is profoundly mistaken.
Last year, Obama installed a pre-condition for bilateral Israeli and Palestinian negotiations which Palestinians had heretofore not required, that Israel cease all settlement construction regardless of whether the settlement was located in the so-called consensus settlements (large Israeli suburbs which under any plan would remain with Israel). Holding to its position that all issues should be bilaterally negotiated without precondition, Israel balked. Once Obama relented, the Palestinians nonetheless continued to insist on this pre-condition. The net results are no bilateral negotiations for over 2 years.
Obama’s revised declaration of border parameters, including his statement that Israel have no security presence in the Jordan Valley, follows this same, failed strategy of demanding pre-negotiation concessions from Israel while requiring none of the Palestinians. Further, the President insisted that the two most difficult issues, Jerusalem and refugees, be put off till after the parties determine the borders of a new Palestinian State. This formula challenges elements of the long held, “land for peace” strategy long the basis of Israeli-Palestinian
negotiations, and which led to the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt as well as efforts to secure peace between Israel and Syria.
Apparently the Administration wants to try, “something new” as previous attempts at peace failed and the “Arab Spring” changes the calculus. Fine, try something new if it can be productive, but not just for the sake of trying something new.
Iran-backed terrorist organization Hamas, and Fatah reconciled ahead of the push for unilateral declaration of independence; a union required just long enough to win a UN vote in September. And though Israel has been willing to negotiate with Fatah, including Hamas dooms any current prospects for bilateral negotiations. Obviously, Fatah knew this to be the result and Obama noted yesterday as well that Israel must only negotiate with a partner that recognizes its right to exist as a Jewish State.
Some might therefore conclude no harm no foul. Even though Obama set forth new parameters, Israel is off the hook if and until Hamas recognizes the Jewish State and ceases terror.
Unfortunately, Israel is never off the hook. Obama’s revised policy will enhance the already viscous international effort to reduce Israel in size and stature and be claimed as a starting point for future negotiations if and when restarted; which could have the effect of preventing the very negotiations sought by Obama.
Some mistakenly suggest Obama wants Israel to withdrawal to the actual ’67 borders. However, this is not case as he clearly noted the need for, “land swaps”. While others mistakenly urge that nothing has changed. But in diplomacy, particularly Mideast diplomacy, words of an American President possess great weight and meaning. The President did not use different language for the mere sake of it.
What Obama either does not understand or ignores is that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has never been about settlements. If so, the parties would have resolved it years ago. Settlements, mostly suburbs of Jerusalem which provide Israel with the territorial integrity to defend itself, are not the reason peace does not exist. When Palestinian text books do not include Israel in Middle East maps and the Hamas charter reads in part:
The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!
The issue at the core of this conflict unfortunately remains existence of the Jewish State of Israel.
By referencing the borders before the Six Day War, which is the 1949 Armistice line, without final resolution of all outstanding issues, Obama provides the Palestinians the opportunity to gain territorial advantage without ever committing to a final peace with Israel.
History illustrates Israel takes risks for peace when it’s secure and knows the US has its back. Twenty-two Arab states plus Iran provide varying levels of support to the Palestinian cause leaving Israel isolated. One reasons for the importance of the US-Israel relationship is it provides Israel with a friend in a very lonely neighborhood. Changing major US policy yesterday without even a hint of advance notice to Israeli leadership does not create the security for Israel to take appropriate risks at peace.
To be clear, the President did not amend the United States relationship with Israel and noted many positives including condemning Palestinian efforts to delegitimize Israel in the UN and unilaterally create a Palestinian State, stating that the Fatah and Hamas agreement raises, “profound and legitimate questions” for Israel, calling on Syrian President Bashar Assad to either lead, “genuine transition” to political reform or step down, recommitting to protecting Israel’s security, and criticizing the ongoing rocket and other terrorist attacks by Hamas as well as the long-standing Palestinian culture of hate.
But the most attention on a speech that covered the entire Middle East has and will be on the “pre-67” language. And instead of creating momentum for peace, creates new obstacles. Whether Obama wanted to send a message to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, amend long-held US policy, or just wanted to try something different, yesterday’s speech may result in more steps back