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Israel, Palestine, and Obama: Is the President Already Walking Back his Demands on Israel?

As may have been expected, President Obama’s decision yesterday to become the first American president to directly and overtly declare that Israel must withdraw to its 1949 borders was met with negative reactions both at home and abroad – particularly within the state of Israel, over 300,000 of whose residents currently live in the territories Obama demanded that the Jewish state cede to a future "state of Palestine."

The problem here, as I noted yesterday, is greater than the "simple" issue of creating 300,000 refugees in a new state that will not take kindly to their presence (to say the very least); it is one of Israel’s overall security and ability to protect its people and defend itself against future attacks, which are currently mitigated by the presence of buffer zones and IDF personnel outside the lines within which Obama has declared Israel must recede.

Though some American commentators found a reason to gripe about the apparent lack of diplomatic decorum involved in his statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to Obama’s speech by reminding the 44th president of a promise his predecessor, George W. Bush, made to a previous Israeli PM a few years ago. At that time (2004), Bush wrote the following to Ariel Sharon:

In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations 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.

On April 22, 2004, a week after receiving that letter, Sharon told the Israeli Knesset what it meant for the Jewish state:

There is American recognition that in any permanent status arrangement, there will be no return to the [19]67 borders. This recognition is to be expressed in two ways: understanding that the facts that have been established in the large settlement blocs are such that they do not permit a withdrawal to the [19]67 borders and implementation of the term ‘defensible borders.’

With yesterday’s speech, President Obama officially changed that U.S. policy – a fact which Netanyahu immediately reminded him of, and pronounced unacceptable to the Israeli government or people :

Israel appreciates President Obama’s commitment to peace.  Israel believes that for peace to endure between Israelis and Palestinians, the viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state.

That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress .

Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines .

Those commitments also ensure Israel’s well-being as a Jewish state by making clear that Palestinian refugees will settle in a future Palestinian state rather than in Israel.

Without a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem outside the borders of Israel, no territorial concession will bring peace.

Equally, the Palestinians, and not just the United States, must recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, and any peace agreement with them must end all claims against Israel.

Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in the Atlantic , takes exception to the Israeli Prime Minister’s tone because, in his view, the relationship between the US and Israel is not one of equals, and the recipient of live-sustaining aid should not speak in such a way to its benefactor:

I don’t like this word, "expect." Even if there weren’t an imbalance between these two countries — Israel depends on the U.S. for its survival, while America, I imagine, would continue to exist even if Israel ceased to exist — I would find myself feeling resentful about the way Netanyahu speaks about our President.

It seems to me that such an attitude assumes the U.S.’s reasons for supporting Israel – the home state of the Jews established on the heels of the Holocaust, a close economic partner, and the lone functioning, pro-Western democracy in the region – are purely altruistic, and that we derive no benefit whatsoever from Israel’s existence as a whole (let alone from supporting that existence).

Jennifer Rubin, writing on her Washington Post blog , suggests that by last night President Obama was already beginning to walk back his declaration , made earlier in the day, that Israel must withdraw to its 1949 borders as the first step in an imagined "renewed peace process" between the Jewish state and its Palestinian neighbors.  The evidence comes from a BBC interview the president gave yesterday evening. Let’s see how his statement there compares to the relevant passage from his speech.

In his Middle East speech, Obama said :

So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. 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. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

Last night, he said this to the BBC (the ellipses reflect breaks in the article’s quotes; no full transcript was available):

The basis for negotiations will involve looking at that 1967 border, recognising that conditions on the ground have changed and there are going to need to be swaps to accommodate the interests of both sides. …Our argument is let’s get started on a conversation about territory and about security. …If we make progress on what two states would look like and a reality sets in among the parties, that this is how it is going to end up, then it becomes easier for both sides to make difficult concessions to resolve those two other issues.

This clarification of terms on Israel is reminiscent of a similar move by President Bush a little over three years ago. At a conference held at Annapolis, Maryland, which was attended by Israel’s neighbors on the condition (among others) that they would not have to recognize Israel’s right to exist prior to the beginning of negotiations, Bush said the following:

The Israelis must do their part. They must show the world that they are ready to begin — to bring an end to the occupation that began in 1967 through a negotiated settlement This settlement will establish Palestine as a Palestinian homeland, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. Israel must demonstrate its support for the creation of a prosperous and successful Palestinian state by removing unauthorized outposts, ending settlement expansion, and finding other ways for the Palestinian Authority to exercise its responsibilities without compromising Israel’s security.

The next spring (May, 2008), after the "peace process" which Annapolis was intended to restart had proven utterly fruitless (as might be expected due to the lack of the most basic of preconditions for participation – the recognition of a basic right to exist), Bush walked back his previous statements, and said the following in an address to the Israeli Knesset:

[T]he founding charter of Hamas calls for the "elimination" of Israel. …[T]he followers of Hezbollah chant "Death to Israel, Death to America!" That is why Osama bin Laden teaches that "the killing of Jews and Americans is one of the biggest duties." …[T]he President of Iran dreams of returning the Middle East to the Middle Ages and calls for Israel to be wiped off the map…There are good and decent people who cannot fathom the darkness in these men and try to explain away their words. It’s natural, but it is deadly wrong. As witnesses to evil in the past, we carry a solemn responsibility to take these words seriously. Jews and Americans have seen the consequences of disregarding the words of leaders who espouse hatred. And that is a mistake the world must not repeat in the 21st century.

Bush, at least, was willing to acknowledge both the widespread existence of pure anti-Israel, anti-Jewish sentiment throughout the region, and the obstacles (to put it mildly) this sentiment presents to peace in the region. Whether that’s a nuancing or walking-back of his earlier statement or not is an open question, given the nonspecific (and often uninformed) language Obama uses in foreign policy statements and speeches. Obama, on the other hand, took no more than a passing note of Hamas’s dedication to Israel’s destruction, completely ignoring the anti-Israel’s-existence sentiment that permeates the rest of the Palestinian leadership and population, as well as the rest of the region (and Old Europe, to say the very least).

In making the statements he did, though, even if he tries to walk them back, Obama did irreparable damage to Israel’s position in the negotiating process. Rubin notes this, as well, writing:

As for Obama, whether he cloddishly used language without understanding its full import or whether he intended once again to stick it to Bibi Netanyahu, the damage is done. The Israelis are reminded that Obama is not a president who truly understands the Jewish state and can be counted on to defend it.

Jewish voters who were nervous before are likely more nervous now. And just imagine, in a second term Obama won’t necessarily care what either the Israelis or pro-Israel voters have to say. There will be no backpedals then.

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