Friday, May 20, 2011

Continuing Fallout From President Obama's Middle East Speech

Despite the fact that the speech was largely directed at areas other than the Arab-Israeli conflict, the headlines are pretty much in concert that President Barack Obama made demands on Israel that exceed anything demanded by the US in the past.

That's simply wrong, but the Administration isn't stepping forward to address the situation.

The fact that President Obama says that the borders of a 2-state solution will be along the 1967 lines with land swaps is essentially the same exact language used by President George H.W. Bush, President Bill Clinton, and President George W. Bush. In many respects, the speech carries on the policy prescriptions of President Bush, who wanted Israel to have secure and defensible borders:
Initially, the Clinton administration supported the idea of defensible borders in its January 17, 1997, letter by Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But with the 2001 Clinton Parameters, the idea of defensible borders was dropped and replaced by "security guarantees." Indeed, Clinton proposed "an international presence in Palestine to provide border security along the Jordan Valley."

In contrast, Bush refers to defensible borders in the context of preserving and strengthening "Israel's capability to deter and defend itself, by itself."
Here's the entirety of what Obama said about Israel's borders:
We believe 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.
That's a formulation that essentially covers the same exact ground as laid out by President Bush. This isn't a change, but a reaffirmation of existing US policy.

Indeed, yesterday's speech actually continues a trend started by Obama's immediate predecessor by calling out allies who have acted wrongly by not respecting human rights:
He also followed Bush in attacking some US allies, calling on Bahrain and Yemen to make changes. It was a speech that enraged almost every powerful actor in the Middle East and put America out on a limb. Like Bush, Obama is willing to confront some of America’s closest allies (the Saudis, who back the crackdown in Bahrain). Like Bush, he hailed Iraq as an example of democracy and pluralism that can play a vital role in the transformation of the region. Like Bush, he proposes to work with opposition groups in friendly countries.

His policy on Israel-Palestine is also looking Bushesque. Like Bush, he wants a sovereign but demilitarized Palestinian state. Like Bush, he believes that the 1967 lines with minor and mutually agreed changes should be the basis for the permanent boundaries between the two countries — and like Bush he set Jerusalem and the refugees to one side.

The President is nailing his colors to the mast of the Anglo-American revolutionary tradition. Open societies, open economies, religious freedom, minority rights: these are revolutionary ideas in much of the world. Americans have often been globally isolated as we stand for the rights of ordinary people (like immigrant African chambermaids in New York hotels) against the privilege of elites. A faith in the capacity of the common woman and the common man to make good decisions (and in their right to make those decisions even if they are sometimes wrong) is the basis of America’s political faith; President Obama proclaimed today that this needs to be the basis of our policy in the Middle East.
While everyone is apparently focused on the Israel 1967 line/border statement, everyone is simultaneously ignoring the fact that President Obama made the clearest declaration to date that the Palestinians would never see statehood if they continue to refuse to accept a 2-state solution and press for independence via means other than direct negotiation with Israel. That's about as strong a supportive statement for Israel as one can give.

So why are so many people, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu so bent out of shape over Obama's line on borders? Even Netenyahu knows that the borders aren't going to be exactly along the 1967 line (or 1948 Green Line); and that without the Palestinians accepting a 2-state solution the Israelis wont get to the point of having to worry about the delineation of the border.

For those who simply haven't read the speech or have adopted the media spin about the speech, here's the comments in question and their supporting context:
For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.

As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.

The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself. A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people - not just a few leaders - must believe peace is possible. The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.

Ultimately, it is up to Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them, nor can endless delay make the problem go away. But what America and the international community can do is state frankly what everyone knows: a lasting peace will involve 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; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

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.

As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself - by itself - against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security. 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. The duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.

These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I know that these steps alone will not resolve this conflict. Two wrenching and emotional issues remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians.
This is an essential restatement of obligations under Oslo Declaration of Principles. It isn't a major divergence from existing policy.

So the media and pundits should stop treating it as such. The fact is that the media and pundits are up in arms over a speech that was anything but controversial - and if anything - made even more explicit the demand that the Palestinians give up the ghost of trying to destroy Israel or seek anything other than a 2-state solution.

A few media outlets and pundits are managing to actually parse the speech correctly, including Ed Morrissey at Hot Air, Ben Smith at Politico and the Christian Science Monitor, which notes the following:
Netanyahu, who sometimes users bluster as a negotiating tool, practically ordered Obama to change course yesterday. In a statement ahead of his US trip that began today Netanyahu said a Palestinian state would not be founded "at Israel's expense" and that he "expects to hear from President Obama a reconfirmation of commitments to Israel from 2004." The Jerusalem Post characterized Netanyahu's response as "quick and bitter."

But what is the commitment from 2004? It's a letter written by President George W. Bush that ... suggests more or less the same thing that Obama said yesterday.

"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," President Bush wrote to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in April of 2004. "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."

Now, the language of Bush's comment may be flipped a little, in the sense that he emphasizes that the borders will be different from the 1949-67 borders rather than emphasizing that those should be the starting point, but the overall sense is the same. The real contours of the borders will be determined between the Israelis and Palestinians with "mutually agreed changes" (in Bush's formulation) or "mutually agreed land swaps" (in Obama's).
In other words, this speech broke no new ground despite all the manufactured outrage.

No comments: