WASHINGTON — Israel and its supporters were understandably nervous when President Obama stepped to the podium of the State Department. After two years of what they viewed as disastrous policies that were detrimental to Israel, the main question on the pro-Israel community’s mind was how bad the speech would be for Israel.
To the surprise of most, Obama gave a speech that was sympathetic to Israel’s concerns and critical of the Palestinian position. Rather than applaud the president, however, the Israeli Prime Minister chose to attack the speech because of a reference to Israel returning to the 1967 borders, and completely missed the nuance that made the statement far closer to Israel’s position than to the Palestinians.’
Unlike most Middle East speeches influenced by State Department Arabists, Israel and the Palestinian issue was not the major focus. This reflects the fact that the “Arab Spring” has had nothing to do with that conflict. This contrasts with the words of Obama’s former National Security Adviser, David Jones, who said, at the height of the Egyptian turmoil, “The Israeli Palestinian conflict remains the core problem in the Middle East, and solving it will go a long way toward securing regional and even global peace.”
The media highlighted a sentence fragment — “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines.” Israel’s prime minister and much of the pro-Israel community misconstrued the statement and blew this remark out of proportion. They saw this was a repudiation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 and a demand for Israel to withdraw to the indefensible border of pre-1967.
If you look at the full sentence, however, Obama has actually restated Israel’s longstanding policy on 242. Obama said, “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. If Israel was being asked to return to the ‘67 lines, there would be no need for land swaps. The exchange of land means that Israel is expected to keep territory in the West Bank, undoubtedly the settlement blocs that even the Palestinians have conceded will be part of Israel, and will compensate the Palestinians with an equal amount of territory, most likely in the Negev around Gaza.
Obama did not make any new demands on Israel; in fact, his previous insistence on a settlement freeze is conspicuously absent from the speech. He mentioned that settlement building continued, implicitly criticizing the policy, but that is dramatically different from his earlier position.
Even more telling, Obama was very tough on the Palestinians. While conceding their right to statehood, he criticized their efforts to avoid negotiations through unilateral measures at the United Nations, he reprimanded them for their failed efforts to delegitimize Israel, and he condemned Hamas for its policy of “terror and rejection.”
Obama also explicitly attacked the Fatah/Hamas reconciliation. Echoing the Israeli position, he said, “How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist.” The president added that the “Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.”
While Israel’s acts of self-defense have been internationally criticized, Obama made clear “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.” Furthermore, he sided with Israel’s position that a future Palestinian state must be “non-militarized.”
One reason Obama’s tone toward Israel may have changed is the fear that he will lose a significant proportion of Jewish voters who are angry with his Middle East policy (no doubt a reason he also unexpectedly agreed to speak to the convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). A second explanation is that he has learned to trust advisor Dennis Ross much more than the Arabists at State who formulated the disastrous policies of his first two years. It also remains to be seen whether his private discussions with Prime Minister Netanyahu diverge from the public statement, and whether any pressure is placed on the Israeli leader.
For his part, Netanyahu may have blundered by reacting so quickly and viscerally to the speech. Rather than recognizing the context, he focused on a misinterpretation of the remark on the 67 lines and came to Washington in a fighting mood. Had he instead praised the speech and come here with the intention to build on it with his own gestures of good will and suggestions for moving the process forward, he could expect a warm reception. If, however, he continues to treat Obama’s position as an attack on Israel, and to focus on all the (legitimate) obstacles to peace, he will strain the relationship at a moment when the president might be open to adopting a new, more realistic approach to the Palestinian issue, and improving ties with Israel.
(Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst whose latest book, “The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East,:” is published by HarperCollins Publishers.)