President Obama made his much-awaited speech on the Middle East this morning (the full transcript is here). I’ll comment a bit on the part relating to Israel.
1. Although Obama told us what he wanted to see happen — a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, he did not say what, if anything the US would do to bring that about.
2. He implied (but did not say directly) that the US would not support a unilateral declaration of ‘Palestine’ in September.
A UN General Assembly resolution can still be passed and other nations can still recognize the state, but I assume the US would veto a Security Council resolution.
3. He referred to Israel as a “Jewish state” and the “homeland of the Jewish people.”
The Palestinians have loudly and often said that this is unacceptable to them. Will agreement be a requirement for negotiations to proceed to the border-drawing stage? The President mentioned the Fatah/Hamas agreement as a problem to which the Palestinians will have to “provide an answer”. Will this issue, too, need to be settled to Israel’s satisfaction before implementing changes on the ground?
4. He called for borders based on the “1967 lines” with agreed-on swaps.
I see this as a retreat from the principle of UNSC resolution 242, which calls simply for “secure and recognized boundaries,” even though Obama used this phrase. The “1967 lines” are in fact the 1949 armistice lines, which nobody — not Israel and not the Arab states — accepted as ‘borders’. They are where the armies happened to be at the end of the war of independence.
You could even call them the ‘lines of ethnic cleansing’, because Jews living beyond them, in eastern Jerusalem and Judea/Samaria, were expelled at gunpoint by the Jordanians in 1948. There is no reason to grant them special status, and no reason that the Palestinian Arabs should be ‘compensated’ with swaps for territory beyond them that becomes part of Israel.
5. He called for a “contiguous” state of Palestine.
What this means is that Israel will be cut in half, rendered non-contiguous. Why is this demand considered legitimate?
6. He proposed a ‘borders/security first’ model.
The first step will be “withdrawal of Israeli forces” from the area that will become ‘Palestine’, which will then become a “sovereign non-militarized state” but which will nevertheless take “security responsibility” for its territory. It has historically proven extremely difficult to enforce demilitarization, even of non-state entities — consider the rearmament of Hizballah in Lebanon under the noses of UN forces. Will the US-trained Palestinian ‘security forces’ become an army? What will keep the sovereign state of Palestine from augmenting them? Will Hamas keep its rockets?
At this point, “Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met,” said Mr. Obama. The difficult issues of Jerusalem and refugees will be left for later.
To put not too fine a point on it, Israel is being asked, or told, to surrender an area equal to the area occupied by Jordan in 1949 in return for some kind of security guarantee, without agreement on Jerusalem and refugees. If agreement cannot be reached on these issues, then Israel is left hanging.
But then why couldn’t the Palestinians press their claims for right of return, all of Eastern Jerusalem, etc. against Israel as a sovereign state, exactly as Mahmoud Abbas suggested that they would if a state were unilaterally declared in September? Indeed, it’s absolutely certain that they would.
7. The President left a great deal unsaid, particularly in regard to refugees.
In 2004, the US made a commitment to Israel that to the extent to which ‘refugees’ would be able to ‘return’, it would be to ‘Palestine’, not Israel. Since then there have been indications that the US does not intend to keep the promises it made in the 2004 letter, which was intended as an incentive for Israel to withdraw from Gaza. The fact that Obama did not rule out the resettlement of 4.5 million hostile Arabs in Israel is problematic, since the Arabs will certainly demand it.
The proposal that borders and security will be implemented before the rest of the issues means that this is is a non-starter, because it requires that Israel must relinquish control over land without agreements on Jerusalem and refugees, which implies that the conflict will continue forever.
It’s nice to know that President Obama believes that Israel is a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish people, but this has to be made a precondition of any agreement.
It is distressing that Obama did not explicitly agree to keep the commitments made in the 2004 letter. Israel will never agree to resettle millions of Arabs in Israel and become an Arab-majority state.
He does seem to understand that Israel is within its rights to refuse to negotiate with a PA that contains an unrepentant Hamas. Of course, we know that there cannot be any other kind of Hamas, so I presume that he expects to somehow redefine it as acceptable.
This proposal will clearly never be implemented and I think was included just in order to have something to say about the matter.