May 23 2011
Number 05/11 #07
Events in Washington relevant to the Middle East continue apace. Following US President Obama’s Middle East policy speech last Thursday, Obama met with Israeli PM Netanyahu on Friday (a video of Netanyahu’s remarks is here and a transcript is here, while video of Obama is here) and then spoke to the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC on Sunday (a text of his remarks is here.) This Update deals with some of the key issues raised by the statements at all three events.
First up is former senior US official Elliot Abrams, who looks at how the AIPAC speech clarified the more controversial elements of the speech on Thursday. He notes the statement on Hamas was clearer, and the words President Obama used on borders was a correction to a mistake on Thursday, where he seemed to be suggesting that Israel could be forced completely back to the 1949 armistice lines if the Palestinians did not choose to agree to land swaps. Abrams notes a contradiction, however, that seemed to continue in the AIPAC speech, a recognition that Israel could not be expected to negotiate with a Palestinian Authority containing an unrepentantly rejectionist Hamas, and yet a demand seemed to be there for Israel to find some way to negotiate. For Abram’s full discussion of the AIPAC speech’s key elements, CLICK HERE. Another interesting assessment of the AIPAC speech comes from Ron Radosh. Meanwhile, Abrams also had another interesting article on the Obama Administration’s views on Jerusalem – arguing that the demands with regard to the 1967 lines is untenable.
Next up is David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, reflecting on an important missing element in all of Obama’s statements (while this piece was written before the AIPAC speech – a subsequent Jerusalem Post editorial points out the trend continued in that speech as well) – any suggestion that the claimed Palestinian “right of return” of refugees to Israel cannot be part of a peace deal. Horovitz notes that the President’s silence was especially conspicuous during a week in which the Naqba protests – efforts to cross Israel’s border and demand lost property in Israel – underlined the seriousness of the demand for “return” for Israel. Horovitz suggests that President Obama is not taking seriously enough the extent of Palestinian intolerance for the idea of Jewish sovereignty with his formulation putting off the refugee issue until after territorial issues are resolved. For the rest of this important argument, CLICK HERE. Other Israeli authors, including academic Jonathan Schachter and columnist Evelyn Gordon argue that Obama’s stance seems to be that the Palestinians should be given statehood and land without actual peace – which would require settling the issues of the refugees and Jerusalem. Plus, law Professor Peter Berkowitz discusses how the “Palestine papers” reveal the extent to which the Palestinian demand for a right of return doomed peace negotiations in 2008.
Finally, American reporter Glen Kessler, who runs a column called “The Fact-Checker” has fact-checked the extent to which Barack Obama’s statement on the “1967 lines” on Thursday – namely, “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” – was a break from the past. He reviews UN Resolution 242 as well as statements from past US Presidents on this issue, from Johnson through Bush. In the end, he concludes that Obama’s statement was indeed a significant departure. For this useful primer on past US policy on the status of the 1949 armistice lines, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Barry Rubin has been blogging up a storm on what he sees as the errors and misunderstandings behind Obama’s statements – see here, here and here. Interestingly, one of his posts concerns Izzedin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor who lost three daughters during the 2008-2009 Gaza war and who was mentioned by Obama. Dr. Abuelaish is currently visiting Australia.
- By contrast, Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute argues that Obama has recognised that Hamas is the key obstacle to peace and his other statements are relatively unproblematic. Similarly, noted Israeli columnist Eitan Gilboa argued that the Israeli-American differences revealed in some areas are not surprising or particularly worrying.
- A Washington Post editorial criticised Obama for sparking a conflict with Israel which distracted from his agenda of encouraging Mideast democratisation.
- Israeli blogger Omri Ceren points out that the Palestinians appear to be already demanding Israel’s agreement to Obama’s preferred outcomes as a pre-condition before talks can even resume.
- Hamas says the US will never be able to force them to recognise Israel.
- There has been much writing in Israel discussing the ongoing Palestinian pre-occupation with the 1948 “Naqba” (“catastrophe”) and its significance for peace prospects – see here, here and here.
- The PA passes a law to give all imprisoned Palestinian terrorists, whatever their faction or crimes, a monthly salary.
- For those who missed it, AIJAC Executive Director Dr. Colin Rubenstein gave his take on Obama’s Thursday speech in the Australian on Saturday.
by Elliott Abrams
Council on Foreign Relations
Posted on Sunday, May 22, 2011
President Obama spoke to AIPAC today and addressed the controversy his Thursday speech had caused.
He met two criticims by backing down. On Thursday he had not mentioned the “Quartet Principles.” Today he did, saying that Hamas must “accept the basic responsibilities of peace: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, rejecting violence, and adhering to all existing agreements.”
He also responded to the criticisms of his call for negotiations based on the “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” Today the President said that:
“By definition, it means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. It is a well known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.”
Here the President was admitting error while claiming he had not made one. The error on Thursday was not saying, as he did today, that any agreed border would be different from the 1967 line. But the President failed again to recognize that the 1967 line was actually the 1949 armistice line, and that a return to it should not merely reflect “changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground.” In fact those lines would need to change even if not one settlement had ever been built. The changes must reflect Israel’s need for secure and defensible borders, which has long been the American position. Moreover the changes need to reflect that the 1949 lines were the product of aggressive war and were unjust: for example, the Western Wall of the ancient Temple was in Jordanian-occupied Jerusalem prior to the 1967 war, and is now–and obviously must remain–in Israel.
The President also failed to resolve one logical contradiction in his policy–one with considerable significance–perhaps because it is impossible to do so.
The contradiction is visible clearly in these lines he delivered: “we know that peace demands a partner – which is why I said that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist, and we will hold the Palestinians accountable for their actions and their rhetoric. But the march to isolate Israel internationally – and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations – will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative.”
So Israel should and must negotiate, but Israel cannot be expected to negotiate. If Mr. Obama wonders about criticism–and he complained about it at AIPAC–he should ponder those lines in his own speech. He said today that “If there’s a controversy, then, it’s not based in substance. What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately.” Perhaps. It does seem that Israel is being pressured to negotiate even by those who “acknowledge privately” that it has no negotiating partner. Mr. Obama is in a separate category: he is pressuring Israel to negotiate even as he acknowledges publicly that it has no negotiating partner.
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By DAVID HOROVITZ
Jerusalem Post, 20/05/2011
The president’s new parameters show him blind to the significance of the demand for a “right of return.”
Last Sunday, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Palestinian Arabs who had left Israel while the Arab world tried to murder our state at birth, attempted a symbolic “return,” with varying degrees of success, across the Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Egyptian borders, and from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
They were warmly praised in this effort by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the ostensibly moderate successor to Yasser Arafat with whom Israel has been trying for almost eight years to make peace. Abbas — who later in the week, in a New York Times op-ed, rewrote the history of Israel’s reestablishment to air-brush out the Arabs’ rejection of what would have been their independent state alongside ours — movingly praised those who had died in Sunday’s “Nakba Day” assault on Israel’s borders (most of them killed by Lebanese Army forces) as the latest “martyrs” to the Palestinian cause.
Sunday’s Nakba onslaught against sovereign Israel, and its moving endorsement by Israel’s putative Palestinian partner, was the latest bleak demonstration of the Palestinians’ insistent refusal, for close to two-thirds of a century, to internalize the fact that the Jews have a historic claim to this sliver of land, and that their demands for statehood cannot be realized at the cost of ours.
Amid all the “differences” that Binyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama on Friday acknowledged in their visions for the way forward to Israeli-Palestinian peace, it is the president’s evident incapacity to appreciate the uncompromising Palestinian refusal to countenance Israel’s legitimacy that is most damaging the vital American-Israeli relationship and most dooming his approach to peacemaking.
An indication of his failure to internalize that Israel, in any borders, is regarded as fundamentally illegitimate by much of the Palestinian leadership and public was evident in Obama’s 2009 Muslim world outreach speech in Cairo. He failed, before that most vital of audiences, to mention Israel’s historic tie to this land – the fact that this is the only place where the Jews have ever been sovereign, the only place where the Jews have ever sought sovereignty, a place we never willingly left and one to which we always prayed to return.
No Palestinian leader will advocate viable compromise with Israel until this sovereign Jewish connection is accepted, and yet the president opted not to utilize that extraordinary opportunity to emphasize our sovereign rights here, and thus to encourage the necessary compromise.
Two years on, the president all too obviously has not changed. There were positives for Israel in his Thursday speech on the Middle East – including the insistence that a Palestinian state be demilitarized, and the criticism of Palestinian moves to seek UN support for statehood without negotiating peace with Israel. These were outweighed by the negatives, however. And common to those negative formulations — from a president who may well truly believe that he is being fair to Israel, and that we are hamstrung by a prime minister incapable of taking the decisions necessary to ensure Israel’s Jewish and democratic future – is the refusal to acknowledge Palestinian intolerance for Jewish sovereignty, and press urgently for the measures needed to reduce and eventually eliminate that intolerance.
It is immensely troubling for many Israelis to recognize that our most important strategic partner is now publicly advocating, before any significant sign of Palestinian compromise on final status issues has been detected, that we withdraw, more or less, to the pre-1967 lines – the so-called “Auschwitz borders” — from which we were relentlessly attacked in our first two fragile decades of statehood. But only a president who ignores or underestimates Palestinian hostility to Israel could propose a formula for reviving negotiations in which he set out those parameters for high-risk territorial compromise without simultaneously making crystal clear that there will be no “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.
Obama is urging Israel – several of whose leaders have offered dramatic territorial concessions in the cause of peace, and proven their honest intentions by leaving southern Lebanon, Gaza and major West Bank cities, only to be rewarded with new bouts of violence – to give up its key disputed asset, the biblically resonant territory of Judea and Samaria, as stage one of a “peace” process. But he is not demanding that the Palestinians – whose leaders have consistently failed to embrace far-reaching peace offers, most notably Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer of a withdrawal to adjusted ’67 lines and the dividing of Jerusalem – give up their key disputed asset, the unconscionable demand for a Jewish-state-destroying “right of return” for millions, until some vague subsequent stage, if at all. He merely suggests that the refugee issue, along with Jerusalem, be addressed later on.
Our prime minister and the president of the United States may not get on terribly well. They may mistrust each other. Each may well think that the other is unrealistic, naïve, arrogant or worse. But the common interest and values shared by our two countries ought to dwarf any such antipathies, and bilateral communications should be coherent enough for vital messages and concerns to be effectively conveyed and addressed.
Yet the president’s new formula for Israeli-Palestinian peace is so unworkable and so counter-productive as to indicate a complete breakdown in such communication. No international player, and certainly no Palestinian negotiator, is now going to defy the Obama framework and declare that the Israelis cannot possibly be required to sanction a dangerous pullback toward the ’67 lines unless or until the Palestinians formally relinquish the demand for a “right of return.” And so we can look ahead to another period of diplomatic deadlock, of an Israel appearing recalcitrant in not meeting the publicly stated expectations of its key ally, of the Palestinians garnering ever-greater international legitimacy even as they are freed of the requirement to acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel by withdrawing their demand to destroy it by weight of refugee numbers.
Some commentators are suggesting that, in his public remarks alongside Netanyahu at the White House on Friday, Obama was trying to show greater empathy for Israel, attempting to reduce some of the frictions caused by his Thursday speech. The president did move just a little on the matter of the Fatah-Hamas unity deal by invoking the Quartet principles in connection with Hamas’s viability as a partner.
For the most part, however, Obama returned to the parameters he had set out on Thursday, coming back to some of what he’d said using very similar wording, and declining to introduce elements that he had chosen not to include a day before.
Most gallingly, as on Thursday and now again at this most obvious of opportunities, he chose not to state clearly and firmly – as there can be no doubt predecessors like George W Bush and Bill Clinton would have done in such a context – that the Palestinian refugee problem will have to be solved independently of Israel. He did not make clear that just as Israel built a vibrant state absorbing the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa six decades ago, a new “Palestine” would finally have to resolve its assiduously perpetuated refugee crisis and abandon the dream of a “return.” The repeated omission will have delighted all of Israel’s uncompromising enemies. The dream lives on.
Netanyahu, of course, filled the breach. Netanyahu spoke about the impossibility of a “right of return.” “It’s not going to happen,” he said, as the president sat impassive alongside him. “Everybody knows it’s not going to happen. And I think it’s time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it’s not going to happen.”
But Obama did no such thing. For the second day in succession the president, in the same week as the Nakba assault on Israel’s borders, when it came to this central demand by the Palestinians that simply cannot be accepted because it would spell the demographic demise of our state, was dismayingly, insistently, resonantly silent.
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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post, Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 05/20/2011
“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.”
— President Obama, May 19, 2011
This sentence in President Obama’s much-anticipated speech on the Middle East caused much consternation Thursday among supporters of the Jewish state. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who will meet with Obama on Friday, adamantly rejected it.
For people not trained in the nuances of Middle East diplomacy, the sentence might appear unremarkable. However, many experts say it represents a significant shift in U.S. policy, and it is certainly a change for the Obama administration.
As is often the case with diplomacy, the context and the speaker are nearly as important as the words. Ever since the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, it has been clear that peace with the Palestinians would be achieved through some exchange of land for security.
Indeed, Israelis and Palestinians have held several intensive negotiations that involved swapping lands along the Arab-Israeli dividing line that existed before the 1967 war — technically known as the Green Line, or the boundaries established by the 1949 Armistice agreements.
So, in many ways, it is not news that the eventual borders of a Palestinian state would be based on land swaps from the 1967 dividing line. But it makes a difference when the president of the United States says it, particularly in a carefully staged speech at the State Department. This then is not an off-the-cuff remark, but a carefully considered statement of U.S. policy.
Here is a tour through the diplomatic thicket, and how U.S. language on this issue has evolved over the years.
The pre-1967 lines are important to both sides for setting the stage for eventual negotiations, but for vastly different reasons.
From an Israeli perspective, the de facto borders that existed before 1967 were not really borders, but an unsatisfactory, indefensible and temporary arrangement that even Arabs had not accepted. So Israeli officials do not want to be bound by those lines in any talks.
From a Palestinian perspective, the pre-1967 division was a border between Israel and neighboring states and thus must be the starting point for negotiations involving land swaps. This way, they believe, the size of a future Palestinian state would end up to be — to the square foot — the exact size of the non-Israeli territories before the 1967 conflict. Palestinians would argue that even this is a major concession, since they believe all of the current state of Israel should belong to the Palestinians.
After the Six-Day War, the United Nations set the stage for decades of fitful peacemaking by issuing Resolution 242, which said that “the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East” should include the following principles:
1. Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.
2. Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.
Since the resolution did not say “the territories,” it has become a full-time employment act for generations of diplomats.
Nevertheless, until Obama on Thursday, U.S. presidents generally have steered clear of saying the negotiations should start on the 1967 lines. Here is a sampling of comments by presidents or their secretaries of state, with some explanation or commentary.
“It is clear, however, that a return to the situation of 4 June 1967 will not bring peace. There must be secure and there must be recognized borders.”
— President Lyndon Johnson, September 1968
“In the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely ten miles wide at its narrowest point. The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again.”
— President Ronald Reagan, September 1, 1982
“Israel will never negotiate from or return to the 1967 borders.”
— Secretary of State George Shultz, September 1988
Starting with President Lyndon Johnson, right after the Six-Day War, U.S. presidents often have shown great sympathy for Israel’s contention that the pre-1967 dividing line did not provide security.
“I think there can be no genuine resolution to the conflict without a sovereign, viable, Palestinian state that accommodates Israeli’s security requirements and the demographic realities. That suggests Palestinian sovereignty over Gaza, the vast majority of the West Bank, the incorporation into Israel of settlement blocks … To make the agreement durable, I think there will have to be some territorial swaps and other arrangements.”
— President Bill Clinton, January 7, 2001
In his waning weeks in office, Clinton laid out what are now known as the “Clinton parameters,” an attempt to sketch out a negotiating solution to create two states. His description of the parameters is very detailed, but he shied away from mentioning the 1967 lines even as he spoke of “territorial swaps.”
“Ultimately, Israelis and Palestinians must address the core issues that divide them if there is to be a real peace, resolving all claims and ending the conflict between them. This means that the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 will be ended through a settlement negotiated between the parties, based on UN resolutions 242 and 338, with Israeli withdrawal to secure and recognize borders.”
— President George W. Bush, June 24, 2002
Bush slipped in a mention of 1967 in his famous Rose Garden speech that called for the ouster of then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. One could argue that the reference to Resolution 242 was a de facto mention of the 1967 lines. At the time, the Arab League was promoting a peace initiative based on the idea of Israel returning to the 1967 boundaries, and this reference was seen as a nod to that concept. But most experts did not view his reference to “1967” as a change.
“In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”
— Bush, letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, April 14, 2004
When Sharon agreed to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, Bush smoothed the deal by exchanging letters that supported the Israeli position that the 1967 lines were not a useful starting point. The letter infuriated Arabs, but it helped Sharon win domestic approval for the Gaza withdrawal. Interestingly, despite Israeli pleas, the Obama administration has refused to acknowledge the letter as binding on U.S. policy.
“We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.”
— Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nov. 25, 2009
When the Israeli government announced a partial settlement freeze, Clinton responded with a statement that specifically mentioned a state based on 1967 lines, but as a “Palestinian goal.” This was balanced with a description of an “Israeli goal.”
Originally, the Obama administration had hoped both sides would have agreed to acknowledge such goals as a starting point for negotiations — known in the diplomatic trade as “terms of reference.” When that effort failed, Clinton issued the concept in her own name. She would repeat the same sentence, almost word for word, many times over the next 1½ years.
The Bottom Line
In the context of this history, Obama’s statement Thursday represented a major shift. He did not articulate the 1967 boundaries as a “Palestinian goal” but as U.S. policy. He also dropped any reference to “realities on the ground” — code for Israeli settlements — that both Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton had used. He further suggested that Israel’s military would need to agree to leave the West Bank.
Obama did not go all the way and try to define what his statement meant for the disputed city of Jerusalem, or attempt to address the issue of Palestinians who want to return to lands now in the state of Israel. He said those issues would need to be addressed after borders and security are settled. But, for a U.S. president, the explicit reference to the 1967 lines represented crossing the Rubicon.
UPDATE, 4:45 P.M.
A number of readers have asked about a statement made by George W. Bush in 2005: “Any final status agreement must be reached between the two parties, and changes to the 1949 Armistice Lines must be mutually agreed to.”
I purposely did not include this in my list because in the annals of diplomacy it is considered a relatively unimportant statement. It was made at a news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, not in a speech or in a letter (where, by contrast, the language is more carefully formulated.) It is essentially a restatement of the 2004 letter, with perhaps a bit more emphasis on “mutual agreement,” designed to please Palestinian ears.
At the time, it was considered an insignificant statement, by the Americans and the Palestinians — and the reporters. I looked back at the 29-paragraph article I wrote on the news conference. It mentioned the sentence in the last paragraph and did not focus at all on the phrase “1949 Armistice Lines.” The New York Times report on the same news conference did not mention Bush’s comment at all.
For diplomatic purposes, speeches and letters will almost always trump remarks at news conferences. The context is also important. As seen by the reporting at the time, no one thought Bush’s comment was remarkable or significant, in contrast to the reception that Obama’s statement on Thursday received. That’s because it was considered simply a restatement of the 2004 letter — which was considered the most explicit description of U.S. policy. Analysts who are citing this as evidence of little difference between Bush and Obama are deceiving themselves.