Following a week of dramatic speeches and meetings in Washington featuring US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, two conclusions have emerged. On the positive side, the United States and Israel alliance, though not always perfect, is strong and enduring. Worryingly, however, prospects for advancing peace between Israel and the Palestinians appears more elusive today than for a very long time.
On May 19, President Obama’s major State Department speech outlining US foreign policy in the Middle East focussed primarily on American reactions to the “Arab Spring” sweeping the region, but also reflected US thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There were many positive elements to President Obama’s speech on both counts. On the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he warned that core issues between Israel and the Palestinians can only be negotiated in direct talks between the parties, while cautioniing the Palestinians in no uncertain terms that their current plan to seek a unilateral declaration of statehood through the UN would be unproductive and implied it would be vetoed by the US at the Security Council.
Further, the President noted in reference to the recent Hamas-Fatah power-sharing deal that “no country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organisation sworn to its destruction.”
Most importantly, he stressed that the model to be pursued is “two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people,” which is indeed the only viable formula for peace, but one which large segments of Palestinian society still reject.
These positive sentiments were, however, largely overshadowed by Obama’s unfortunate and ill-timed statements on certain concrete details of a future peace. Most controversial was the President’s initial suggestion that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps”.
This was an inopportune time for Obama to be seen as moving the US policy position closer to the Palestinian one on this issue – with the Palestinian Authority (PA) repeatedly rejecting negotiations, pursuing a unilateralist model in violation of the Oslo Accords, and having just joined up with the Hamas rejectionists to effectively make renewed negotiations all but impossible. To many Palestinians, it will appear that an uncompromising hardline has been successful in winning US concessions on key issues they care about, and is the best means to gain more in the future.
Further, it needs hardly be said that Israel cannot be expected to simply return to the “1967 lines” – actually the 1949 armistice lines, which never constituted a recognised international border and left Israel 15 kilometres wide at one key point. As Netanyahu was quick to stress publicly and privately to President Obama at the Oval Office on May 20, Israel “cannot go back to the 1967 lines, because these lines are indefensible”.
Of course, Obama did suggest mutually agreed land swaps to modify those borders, and it is probably true that a successful peace deal may well end with a Palestinian state constituting, after land swaps, territory roughly equivalent to the area of the West Bank and Gaza. Nonetheless, it was undesirable for Obama, as US President, to make these lines, a priori, the basis of negotiations in the way he did. The Palestinian side, which has been pressing for such recognition, predictably took this to mean that it is acknowledged that all land over the 1967 armistice lines is rightfully theirs and land swaps are not required of them – but they absolutely are for a viable peace deal!
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat immediately seized on President Obama’s statement to demand Israel agree to “a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders” before negotiations can even commence. Not to be outdone, Hamas demanded Israel be forced to concede the borders envisioned in the 1947 partition plan.
It was highly welcome, therefore, that President Obama clarified this aspect in his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on May 21, saying that “the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967… to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years… including the new demographic realities on the ground, and the needs of both sides”.
In clarifying his position, President Obama reaffirmed the content and spirit of a letter of guarantee to Israel from President Bush in 2004, whose apparent abrogation by the US – together with the breach of trust it represented – was another serious problem with his original formulation.
Netanyahu’s considered response took the form of a rapturously received speech to the US Congress. Not surprisingly, he celebrated the US-Israel relationship, and promised Israeli support for the “desire of Arab peoples in our region to live freely” in the wake of the Arab Spring. But he also re-affirmed Israel’s interest in the Palestinians becoming “a free, viable and independent people in their own state” and promised Palestinians a state “big enough to be viable, independent and prosperous,” providing Palestinians agree to accept a Jewish state, and give up their demanded right of return to Israel. He also personally noted for the first time that peace will mean “some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders.”
Despite the over-heated attention paid by the media to the elements of disagreement that characterised the stances of Obama and Netanyahu, the key take-out from the days of drama in Washington is that the foundation of the US-Israel relationship continues to remain as strong and strategically important today as ever before. This solid relationship remains a model and key factor for successfully channeling Arab aspirations toward genuine democracy, but even more importantly, remains the bedrock for creating the conditions for real Israeli-Palestinian peace progress.