Obama Gets Real on Israel

The Israel-Palestine issue was probably not intended to be the headline item from President Barack Obama's long-awaited speech on the Middle East yesterday, yet it is in danger of becoming so following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's aggressive push-back. The section of the speech Obama devoted to Israeli-Palestinian peace adopted a position for which some advocacy groups and commentators, including in the Israeli press, have been advocating for the past year.

First, Obama focused on setting parameters for borders and security, and he spoke in specific language he had not used before: "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." Providing clarity on the 1967 lines hardly falls into the category of eyebrow-raising breakthroughs, but in the world of almost Talmudic analysis of presidential texts on Israel-Palestine, Obama's speech did offer something new. Using the 1967 lines as the clear reference point takes Netanyahu out of his comfort zone.

In his Cairo speech of June 2009, Obama made no reference to 1967. In speaking to the U.N. General Assembly last year, Obama repeated the vague 2002 "road map to peace" language about ending the "occupation that began in 1967." Other senior officials have referred to 1967 lines as the basis for a territorial arrangement only in the context of this being a Palestinian aspiration (see Hillary Clinton here, for instance). More significant -- and from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's perspective, more troubling -- is that Obama did not refer to realities on the ground or settlement blocs. In so doing, Obama was creating clear distance between this speech and President George W. Bush's 2004 letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Bush's letter referred to, "new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers," Obama's speech did not preclude incorporating settlements into Israel's new border, and in fact quite clearly endorsed that same notion by referring to, "mutually agreed swaps" (Obama did not even insist on those swaps being of equal size, as Europeans have done) - yet the emphasis was sufficiently different to be noticed.

While the president's prescriptions on security were extremely deferential to Israel's security claims, they, too, would not have been to Netanyahu's liking. Obama seemed to make clear that a sovereign Palestinian state has to mean just that, no permanent Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley or at Palestine's external borders with third countries. "The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state," Obama said. "And the duration of this transition period must be agreed."

In addition to attempting to create at least a degree of American credibility on this issue, especially in the face of new regional realities, this Obama speech is also likely a response to the hard-line position that Netanyahu presented in the Israeli Knesset this past Monday. The Netanyahu "no peace" platform is likely to be repeated in the coming days when the Israeli PM addresses the annual conference of American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. Obama administration officials have been encouraging Netanyahu to give them something to work with, but Netanyahu offered nothing.

For many commentators, elites, and others in Israel, the particulars of the Obama speech will be considered an admonition to Netanyahu and evidence of Netanyahu's failed policy and diplomacy. Netanyahu will be blamed, notably by the Kadima opposition party, as having blown a strategic asset that the party considers the 2004 Bush letter to Sharon to have been. Perhaps Obama is also sending a message to the prime minister that playing politics in someone else's backyard is not always a one-way street.

While it is fair to credit Obama for taking a step in the direction of constructive engagement and with attempting to nudge Netanyahu and the debate inside Israel, yesterday's speech did not go far enough to reverse the entrenched dynamics on Israel-Palestine. Unsurprisingly and understandably, Obama was still looking too much over his shoulder, at Congress and other domestic political pressures, and was probably also still influenced by some substantively bad advice and misrepresentation of realities on the ground to really give a speech that changes the fundamental debate.

The missteps include the way the president addressed the issue of Jerusalem, which has to be part of a border agreement. A case can be made for leaving the Old City of Jerusalem, and perhaps even the small area of former Jordanian Jerusalem, to be resolved later, but the rest of municipal East Jerusalem is a unilateral Israeli creation and is integral to the border.

Rhetorically, Obama too often stuck with the same old text that creates false equivalencies between an occupying power and an occupied people. For instance, continued settlement construction is not the same as walking away from negotiations. The former is a violation of international law; the latter, a political tactic. They do not belong together in a he said/she said attempt to create a false symmetry where none exists.

And in addressing Hamas, the president got his emphasis wrong. He focused on Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist, and while deeply regrettable, that position belongs in the context of a solution rather than as a precondition -- Israel, for instance, has not recognized the right to Palestinian statehood on the 1967 lines or any Palestinian fundamental rights for that matter. Obama would have been better advised to emphasize the need for all Palestinian factions, including Hamas, to adhere to international law, notably the inadmissibility of terror or attacks on civilians.

Most important, though, are the president's follow-up steps to his speech. If we are still in the business-as-usual American indulgence of unlawful Israeli actions (as opposed to support for Israel itself, which is a different thing and is something to maintain) and if the U.S. still signals impunity (see February's U.S. veto of the U.N. Security Council's resolution on settlements), then yesterday really will go down as another eminently forgettable day on the Israeli-Palestinian calendar.

Obama might use this speech as an opening play to prevent a vote on Palestinian recognition at the U.N. in September -- which would painfully isolate the U.S. and Israel. If the alternative to the U.N. delivers meaningful progress, then that is preferable -- the U.N. vote itself will not produce de-occupation or Palestinian statehood. The Obama administration can use this explanation -- preventing bad things at the U.N. -- as a way of making the case for the speech in more traditional pro-Israel quarters. This is perhaps a subtext of the president's entire message -- that if Israel wants and needs, for its own future, separation from the territories and to create two sovereign states, then I am the guy with the scalpel who can help perform that surgery. I am the guy who can get this done in a nice way, but there are many others waiting at the door with far more blunt instruments -- from U.N. recognition to sanctions, to regional pressure, to a popular nonviolent civilian uprising among Palestinians.

The president is perhaps trying to convince Israelis and their friends that they might want to do it his way. Netanyahu's response so far suggests that he is simply not interested. Netanyahu launched a quite blunt and pointed political attack on Obama, referencing the promises of a former Republican president and reiterating the support Netanyahu has in today's Republican Congress. Sadly, many so-called friends of Israel in the U.S. are likely to follow Netanyahu's lead. As events inside the region increasingly drive the dynamics of this conflict, possibly taking Israel to a place where its own options shrink drastically, that guy with the scalpel may yet be missed.

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