The spin-doctors at the White House are, no doubt, busily patting themselves on the back about how well the President has finessed his “67 border precondition” (yes, he has made it a defacto pre-condition) which he recklessly inserted into the Israeli/Palestinian conundrum during his middle east speech on May 19. It was, however, a serious and deliberate slap…not a misstep or a fumble, but a serious and intentional slap…and a wake up call. “Here’s how it’s going to be” he, essentially, told the world a day before his scheduled meeting with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had next to no advance notice of the President’s intentions. Mr. Obama is, if nothing else, a very bright man. He knew he was sandbagging the Prime Minister by making the 67 borders a starting point. Even with agreed adjustments, he has robbed the Israelis of their trump card …the amount of territory they were prepared to concede. As the Washington Post editorialized in a May 20 editorial:
“Now, of all times, the Israeli and U.S. governments ought to be working closely together; they should be trying to defuse the U.N. threat, induce Mr. Abbas to change course, and above all prevent a resumption of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, Friday found Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu once again publicly and poisonously at odds with each other, thanks to a handful of lines added by Mr. Obama to his Middle East speech on Thursday. The President’s decision to publicly endorse terms for a peace settlement seemingly calculated to appeal to Mr. Abbas, over the strong objections of Mr. Netanyahu, has had the effect of distracting attention from the new U.S. agenda for the region.”
True, the president did mention two states, one Israeli and one Palestinian living side by side. When he spoke at the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (“AIPAC”) conference he said he had chosen the hard road to peace. So why did he later state that there was really nothing new in his proposal?
Essentially, the president has called for a withdrawal to the 1967 lines with some formulaic border adjustments as a new precondition for talks, which of course, will become incorporated by Mahmoud Abbas into his demands before he comes to the table. Basing so-called peace talks on the ’67 borders is not a new idea. As we noted in last week’s essay, Israel herself has, in the past, made this offer, (actually three times), and last November Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in a joint statement following talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed, on behalf of the United States, the belief that the ’67 borders (with agreed upon swaps) could still be the basis for renewed talks. Israel, however, as the nation that will have to rely, for its very survival, on defending these proposed borders is not prepared to make such an offer, yet again, prior to the resumption of talks and the opportunity to assess the progress of such talks regarding the other critical issues that must be resolved. Israel has continued to oppose this approach right up to President Obama’s speech at the State Department. Nonetheless, President Obama chose to ignore Israeli concerns and formally made the ’67 borders the centerpiece of the American approach to peace talks. Israel will be expected to, essentially, agree to the boundaries before the issues of Jerusalem and the so-called right of return have even been discussed. And while President Obama did refer to Israel as a Jewish state, why not say that the adjacent state of Palestine will be the homeland for Palestinians (who wish to reside in such a new state) many of who have been held by the Arabs in refugee camps for 63 years while others have found homes in other lands, including the United States.
Mr. Obama has made the same error he made right after his inauguration when he demanded a “settlement freeze” from Israel. This then became, for the first time in all the years of negotiations, a precondition for Mr. Abbas to come to the table. Again as the Post said in the aforementioned editorial: “This president likes to portray himself as a pragmatist in foreign policy. In this case, pragmatism would suggest that restoring trust with Israel, rather than courting a feckless Palestinian leader, would be the precondition to any diplomatic success.”
Afterward, the President and his staff were quick to say to anyone who would listen, “everyone knows what the formula for land swaps is going to be.” Well, first of all there is no “formula.” Formulas are precise, like equations. They work only when every part is right and they fail when something is missing. And there is a lot missing in the attempted formulations that have been discussed between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The Palestinians have not given an inch on the unworkable, impractical and unviable non-starter of the right of all Palestinian refugees (actually, primarily their descendants) to return to their former homes in what is now Israel, nor have the Palestinians agreed to a truly shared and indivisible Jerusalem in which they and Israel would both maintain their respective governing offices. In fact, Jews really won’t be welcome anywhere in the new Palestinian state. Palestinian President Abbas has made it crystal clear that in his vision of a future Palestinian state no Israeli would be allowed to be a resident. Just six months ago, Mr. Abbas stated, “If there is an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, we won’t agree to the presence of one Israeli in it.” How does that fit into the “formula” that President Obama says everyone already accepts.
And speaking of formulae that “everyone knows is going to be” the basis of a final agreement, is there a requirement that each party to the looming agreement agree to something so fundamental as an enduring peace between the parties as the ultimate objective in the calculus in this so-called formula? This is, of course, a rhetorical question given that the Palestinians (certainly Hamas) have already rejected these elements of a settlement.
We understand that the back channel discussions between Israel and the Palestinians to which President Obama has referred, have probably focused at times on something akin to the ’67 borders (with certain adjustments), but the reason these discussions have been “back channel” is because there still are huge unresolved issues the resolutions of which are absolutely essential pre-requisites to any settlement on borders. So having the President of the United States publicly place the ’67 borders on the table with great specificity, while alluding to refugee issues and the Hamas utter rejection of Israel’s right to exist was, in our judgment, foolhardy. The President put our ally, Israel, squarely and deliberately on the defensive while giving a soft nod to the common sense understanding that Israel can’t be expected to commit suicide as part of the peace process.
What is also true is that Israel has every right to be reconsidering its twice-offered willingness to establish borders along the pre-67 war lines and to share Jerusalem as the mutual capital of both parties. Both Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert made such offers to no avail. In the interim Israel has been subjected to vicious rocket attacks aimed specifically at its civilian population from the south (by Hamas) and from the north (by Hezbollah). One could make a very good case that Israel should have taken any proposal based on the ’67 borders off the table until the other side made a convincing case that real peace was its objective; something the Palestinians allude to when talking to the West (or, apparently, to President Obama) and obviously eschew when talking amongst themselves. The fact of the matter is that a strong case could be made for holding on to the entire west bank if the party making the case was any state other than Israel. First of all, there has never been an historic state of Palestine. It is a territory that has been administered by others for all of history and has been shared by various ethnicities. A state of Palestine was proposed by the United Nations at the same time, and in the same resolution (Resolution 181) as the world body proposed a state of Israel. The Israelis accepted and the Arabs rejected the resolution. Israel has been subjected to decades of bloodshed by Arab rejectionists ever since.
Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, speaking to a joint session of the Congress last week, framed the issue with exquisite, albeit sad, clarity when he said: “You see, our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state. It has always been about the existence of the Jewish state. This is what this conflict is about. In 1947, the United Nations voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews said yes. The Palestinians said no. In recent years, the Palestinians twice refused generous offers by Israeli Prime Ministers, to establish a Palestinian state on virtually all the territory won by Israel in the Six Day War. They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.”
Every time we hear President Obama refer to Israel’s need to “act boldly” or to make the “hard choices necessary to bring about a stable peace,” we wonder in what universe he dwells. Between Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north, Israel has been subjected to over 10,000 rockets launched at its civilian population; their erstwhile negotiating partners proclaim that no Israelis will be allowed to reside in the new Palestinian state; (Hamas) still declares they will never recognize Israel’s right to exist and that ever ending the war against the Jews would be treasonous. Excuse us for asking an inconvenient question, but just who should be asked to make some hard choices necessary to bring about a stable peace?
Again, as Mr. Netanyahu pointed out: “It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say, … “I will accept a Jewish state.” Those six words will change history. They will make clear to the Palestinians that this conflict must come to an end… that they are not building a state to continue the conflict with Israel, but to end it.” We doubt he ever will. Mr. Abbas, having now reconciled with Hamas, has quite possibly simply transformed the Palestinian Authority into Hamas lite.
President Obama has stated to the Israelis, rather condescendingly in our opinion, that, “we cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades to achieve peace” and has said that his proposals “are the best chance Israel has to avoid growing isolation.” Does the President really not understand what parties during all of these decades have labored to create the very isolation of Israel to which he refers?
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been roundly criticized by a dazzling assortment of talking heads and columnists for being “undiplomatic” in his public rejection of the President’s declaration to the entire world (hours before the Prime Minister’s arrival) that the twice-rejected (by the Palestinians) ’67 border proposals must now be the basis of urgently needed peace talks. Incredulously, as the President’s minions in the media saw it, it was Netanyahu who was being undiplomatic. But just who really was being “undiplomatic” here? The President knew perfectly well that the Israelis were pleading with Secretary of State Clinton as well as his White House advisors not to put Netanyahu in such an untenable position given the realities in the region. Nonetheless, the President stiffed Netanyahu publicly before a vast worldwide audience just prior to his arrival in Washington. We would call that the antithesis of being diplomatic, but it is Netanyahu’s candor that was immediately tagged with the “undiplomatic” label.
The President, his advisors and spinners and an endless array of commentators have faithfully abided by the script that there was nothing new in President Obama’s statement regarding the ‘67 borders. Presidents Bush and Clinton had clearly pursued this path in the past. For that matter, as we stated earlier, so had Israeli Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert. The Palestinians, on the other hand have both rejected these offers and, it seems, simultaneously pocketed them.
President Obama, while standing firm on his decision to publicly put the ’67 border position on the table, tried to “walk it back” when addressing the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee [AIPAC] conclave in Washington last week. “Let me reaffirm what 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps means…the parties themselves –Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.” Incidentally, the reader will recall that the June 4, 1967 borders to which the President refers are simply the demarcation lines that signify where the infant Jewish state finally stopped the five invading Arab armies sixty-three years ago.
President Obama’s decision to make the ’67 borders the cornerstone of renewed negotiations was exquisitely timed. He immediately left for Europe where he could be certain of a cheering audience of European officials.
– Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister, Jean Asselborn rushed to recite his part of the script saying, ‘We should really try to focus … on getting up the nerve to duly support Obama, on also sending a message from here that if the Israeli government doesn’t budge, this idleness, this rigidity means that you very quickly move towards a new conflict,’
– “We can’t make peace if they’re not willing to make peace,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bild said.
– “The resolution of the Middle East conflict is key to ensuring that democratic movements seen in other parts of the Arab world succeed,” said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
We offer high praise to the Italian Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, who said it remained to be seen if the Islamist group Hamas, which recently agreed to reconciliation with, and eventually joining, the Palestinian government will abide by an international requirement to not threaten Israel. “The international community could not accept this way of going forward,’ he said. “We will reiterate … today that the EU expects that Israel’s right to exist and to be secure are fully recognized.”
President Obama told his Sunday morning audience before leaving for Europe, “What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately.” True enough, but there is a reason why experienced negotiators and statesmen have kept the dialogue private. Until all parties to an intended agreement, agree to all of the details (it is, after all, in the details where the devil always dwells) there is no real agreement. The Palestinians will now, thanks to President Obama, pocket the ’67 borders as a veritable fait accompli.
The President seemed to say that Israeli acceptance of his now publicly stated ’67 border position is necessary to keep the Jewish state from falling into greater isolation. In the process, he has isolated Israel more than ever. Given the President’s well-honed and polished reputation for being deliberative, reasonable people might assume that isolation is precisely, or more succinctly, deliberately, what he intended.