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What’s Wrong with Obama’s Israel Speech?
Okay, we have heard it again and again since President Barack Obama’s May 19 speech on the Middle East. The President’s backers keep telling us that he added nothing new when in that speech he said that a Mideast peace agreement would be based on the 1967 Israeli borders with “mutually agreed land swaps.” This, they told us, has been the position of virtually everyone involved in peace negotiations and certainly of US presidents going back to Jimmie Carter. Contrary to what their scrambling apologetics are trying to cover, Obama’s speech moved the needle on US Mideast policy further towards a pro-Palestinian tilt than those who voted for him in 2008 ever imagined.
While Obama’s apologists claim his 1967 border statement added no new substance, we know that in negotiations, especially those involving international brinksmanship and especially in the Middle East, nuance and impression are substantive. If other presidents had the same starting point to a peace deal (and that is not entirely clear), they did not say so. Because Obama did, he sent a clear signal that the ’67 borders were the gold standard for any peace deal. It is not unlike the settlement issue. For 15 years, Palestinian leaders continued to negotiate with Israel while building went on unchecked. It only became an issue for talks when Obama made it one. As Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said, “President Obama stated in Cairo that Israel must stop all construction activities in the settlements. Could we demand less than that?”
So too, with the 1967 borders, that no matter how people now parse Obama’s words, the notion of the 67 borders as the basis for a peace agreement is clearly implanted in the international mind. Another Obama gaffe, of course, is that they are not and never were borders recognized by anyone. The so-called borders are merely armistice lines drawn for a temporary truce based on troop positions after several Arab states attempted to destroy the newborn Jewish State in 1948. After Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Abbas called “on Obama to further press Israel to accept a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders,” according to Al Jazeera. No matter how Obama parses his words, the idea has now become part of the Middle East narrative.
The caveat about land swaps is also an empty one because it requires them to be “mutually agreed upon,” which simply will not happen. Without the swaps, Israel is left a mere eight miles wide at one point, which makes it impossible to prevent “militants” from sitting on the border and shooting ever more sophisticated rockets at airplanes trying to land at Ben Gurion airport. The only solution is for Israel to retain a large chunk of the Jordan Valley to its East. Does Obama believe the Arabs would agree to give up the heartland of their Palestine? And when that does not happen, we can be sure Obama and the talking heads at the UN will tell Israel it has no choice but to accept what the late Abba Eban called “Auschwitz borders.” The Arabs have no incentive to agree to any such swaps.
But that is not all Obama changed. In 2004, the United States gave Israel written assurances that it “is strongly committed to Israel's security and well-being as a Jewish state….and the settling of Palestinian refugees [in a Palestinian state], rather than in Israel.” On the basis of that and other assurances, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the entire Gaza Strip. But now, Obama has reneged on them by saying that the refugee issue remains to be resolved. Nor did he even mention the US position on the issue. Yet, every Palestinian leader from the most moderate to the most radical has said they would not give up their alleged right of return, calling it “sacred.” Hamas’s number two man said it in 2006; Fatah and the PLO also said it could not be relinquished. Less than a week before Obama’s speech, Abbas himself said that they “'will never neglect the ‘right of return’ for Palestinians to their original home.” The day after Obama’s speech, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, speaking about the matter, told Obama, “Palestinian refugees cannot come to Israel... It's not going to happen.” The refugee issue is a red herring for two reasons. First, there are an equal or greater number of Jewish refugees who fled Arab lands, making the entire matter a wash. Second, opening the floodgates of millions of Palestinian Arabs is suicide for Israel as Israel. But considering the new realities Obama just created, Israel likely will be told it has no choice but to accept them by the same advocates for its Auschwitz borders.
On June 4, 2008, candidate Barack Obama told the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” It was not the last time he made the same promise to Jewish and other voters concerned about his anti-Israel associations and other matters In his recent speech, however, Obama threw that into the same “wrenching” and unresolved issue category as the Palestinian right of return. Less than three years after he won their votes, however, Obama is making it clear just how disingenuous and worthless his promises are. As we approach the 2012 contest, US voters will undoubtedly ponder that. Remember how President George H. W. Bush was done in partly because he went back on this campaign pledge: “Read my lips. No new taxes.”
There are other issues. While continuing to characterize the inclusion of Hamas in the PA as “troubling,” Obama implicitly rejected the advice of his own peace partners—the so-called Quartet of the US, UN, EU, and Russia—which demanded three steps by Hamas if they were to become legitimate parties to any negotiations: recognizing Israel’s right to a secure existence; renouncing terrorism; and agreeing to abide by previous Israel-Palestinian compacts. Here, too, Obama has lowered the bar, refusing even to allude to his partner’s assessment. He also seems to have forgotten that the 1967 borders would require Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, which it captured from the Syrians who used it to fire upon peaceful Israeli civilians for decades. Yet, he did not even mention Syria.
Hamas, Jerusalem, refugees, and borders: It seems that the only thing Barack Obama accomplished with his speech was to alienate, 70 percent or more of the American people who have continually expressed solidarity with Israel.