Obama and Israel
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|Josh Block||June 5th 2011|
Progressive Policy Institute
Football, they say, is a game of inches. So too, is Middle East peace making — both figuratively, and in some cases quite literally. President Obama was reminded of that last week when his comments about terms of reference for future Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations provoked a significant public debate, and in some cases, a furious reaction.
Many Republicans—some acting out of purely political motives—and many Democrats, myself included—acting out of genuine concern—reacted quickly and negatively when President Obama adopted as American policy on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks what had previously been described by this Administration as a “Palestinian goal—that is, a Palestinian state “based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps.”
In the view of some, including the White House, that statement was not new U.S. policy. Those views assert that negative reactions suggesting otherwise “misrepresented” the president’s statement, or perhaps more importantly, his intended meaning.
But as we know, when it comes to issues about Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict, nuance matters. This is a place where inches count.
Reaction to that one passage in the “Winds of Change” address, and the media’s almost singular focus on the matter, overshadowed what was one of the most important and impressive speeches of President Obama’s tenure. And in the end it was only a handful of missing words, representing real-world American commitments that were at the heart of the commotion.
There was so much to celebrate in his address: From the soaring and inspiring vision of a boundless future of prosperity for billions of people across the Middle East who have never known freedom, to the impressive and important commitments to Israel’s security, and to America’s determination to stand up for its values and interests in defeating efforts to isolate and delegitimize Israel at the United Nations and beyond.
In fact, an address that was billed as a landmark speech about change in the Arab world was one of the President’s most impressive and pro-Israel addresses of his presidency.
But you’d probably never know that. And that’s a shame.
By saying that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal should be based on the 1967-lines with mutually agreed swaps, but omitting the next key phrase—“that take into account demographic changes and realities on the ground”—it was by just a few inches that the president missed the goal line of putting his statement in line with a half century of his predecessors.
It was the vagueness of his remarks, and the omission of a key few words, which necessarily go hand-in-hand, that caused so much alarm.
The truncated phrase was treated with great significance, because this Administration has consistently declined to affirm the validity of a 2004 official letter of commitments from President Bush on behalf of the United States to the Prime Minister in Israel, in which among other key commitments, the U.S. reaffirmed its promise to ensure that Israel would have “defensible borders” distinct from the 1967 lines that would accommodate demographic changes and reality on the ground—i.e., major Israeli population centers in the West Bank.
Furthermore, despite the president’s repeated calls for a Jewish State, he has yet to embrace the position taken and assurance provided by Presidents Clinton and Bush that under any final peace accord, the refugee question will be addressed within the borders of a Palestinian State, and not Israel.
Had the Obama Administration previously embraced that letter and those critical U.S. promises, there would have been not nearly the outcry.
But that inexplicable breakdown, seeming to call into question America’s commitment to assurances made in writing by an American president to the State of Israel, codified by Congress, and endorsed in the Clinton Parameters of January 2001, laid the groundwork for the stinging reaction to the President’s incomplete reference to the 1967 lines.
In that context, like Tonto to the Lone Ranger, the Israelis were left asking, ‘What do you mean by swaps, Kimosabe?’
A few days later, President Obama gave another speech on the Middle East, this time even more pro-Israel, but once again, you may not know that, either.
Among the important things President Obama made clear in his second address on the Middle East at the AIPAC policy conference, was that, indeed, he agreed with his predecessors, Presidents Bush and Clinton, that any changes on the ground in a peace agreement must reflect today’s demographic realities and Israel’s unique security needs. His statements on that matter put him firmly in-line with American leaders going back to the 1960s, when President Johnson first established America’s policy that no one could expect Israel to go back to its indefensible 1949/1967 lines.
Why does that matter? History and perspective, of course. Consider the Israeli perspective: In the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel survived a miraculous third attempt by a combined force of Arab armies to ‘drive the Jews into the sea’, the nascent Jewish state made important territorial gains.
The city of Jerusalem, after 19 years of Jordanian rule that suppressed freedom of worship for Jews and Christians, was liberated and reunified. The West Bank, known for millennia and in the Old Testament as Judea and Samaria, was brought back into contact with the rest of Israel. The Golan Heights, for years a launching pad from which the Syrian army terrorized Israeli towns, was won in an epic and heroic battle. And the Sinai Desert and Gaza Strip, soon to be offered to Egypt in exchange for peace, were conquered.
Like the Sun rises, Russia and other Arab allies at the United Nations pressed their condemnations of Jewish State. In a typically hypocritical move targeting Israel, some in the world body demanded that for the first time in history land won in a defensive war be fully returned to the aggressors.
The United States—defending its ally Israel, our interests in the region, and basic fairness—rejected that approach. Our elected leaders understood that it was the very indefensible boundaries of 1949/67 encouraged Arab aggression and dreams of destroying the Jewish State and the Jewish People. The United States understood that Israel could not ever be expected or pressured to go back to what became know as ‘the Auschwitz borders.’ That is why America fought so hard to ensure that UN Resolution 242 specifically did not force Israel had to relinquish all of the land it had captured in its war of self-defense, did not force Israel back to indefensible borders and need not exchange territory in a one-to-one ratio.
That is the diplomatic tradition many feared the president was undermining, at a time when Israel is under threat from a genocidal Hezbollah to the north, an unstable Egypt and Syria to its south and northeast, and a Hamas/Fatah unity government that seems ready to abandon the peace process on multiple fronts. The Palestinians rushed to enshrine the president’s position as new preconditions for talks.
But they’re likely to be disappointed. The president made it clear during his second AIPAC speech that he is aligned with those decades of American diplomacy stretching back to the U.S. stand on UNSC 242. That is precisely the diplomatic tradition that the President embraced during his AIPAC speech, a clarification that—again—has been under-appreciated by some.
Perhaps realizing that his first remarks were incomplete and left an impression he had not intended, President Obama, in his speech to AIPAC, built on the pro-Israel foundation of his Winds of Change Address, not only completing the thought he’d begun the prior week, but expanding on several themes in praise-worthy ways.
President Obama powerfully restated in emphatic and unmistakable terms how strenuously the United States will oppose Palestinian efforts to attain unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state in the absence of peace and an end to all claims. This clear leadership stance, and the president’s forceful denunciation of efforts to delegitimatize and isolate Israel are deeply appreciated and underscore the President’s commitment to safeguarding the Jewish state.
Notable was the President’s statement that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Hamas, which he rightly called a terrorist organization. His explicit call once again for the Iranian proxy to meet the quartet conditions—recognizing Israel and its right to exist, renouncing violence, and accepting prior agreements between the PA and Israel, was fundamentally important, and ensures that Hamas must fundamentally change, or else remain a pariah.
The President also explicitly signaled his support for a long-term, but not permanent, Israeli military and security presence in the Jordan Valley. This stance is vital, and like his effort to align administration policy with administrations past, is not just commendable, but significant. And in both speeches, the President stressed not only “ironclad” American support for Israel’s security, but insisted that a future Palestinian state be demilitarized.
His remarks on issues beyond the narrow question of the Israel-Arab dispute are also vitally important—in particular, Iran. Again, President Obama said clearly and unequivocally that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons and that it is American policy to prevent them from doing so.
Both speeches were strongly pro-Israel in the broadest sense. From the President’s vision of a Middle East made up of progressive Arab states more focused on investing in their own human capital and building tolerant, prosperous societies—rather than scapegoating Israel, to his embrace of Israel and its future as a Jewish state with peaceful neighbors, there is much to appreciate. It’s time to say so.
Josh Block is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, a partner in Davis-Block LLC, and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He was previously the spokesman for AIPAC and for the State Department’s U.S. Agency for International Development during the Clinton Administration.