“Unsustainable” versus “Indefensible” over Israel
President Obama created a major brouhaha in U.S.-Israeli relations Thursday with his speech at the State Department on the Middle East in which he called for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace discussions (which have been suspended since 2009) aimed at creating a spearate Palestinian state (the long-familiar two-state solution). Hardly anyone publicly decries the idea of separate Israeli and Palestinian states in principle, but there is disagreement about implementing that principle based on questions about where a border should be and exactly what kind of Palestinian state should be created.
The President argued that the frame of reference for the two new states should be a modified version of the pre-June 4, 1967 border between Israel and what was then the Jordanian West Bank. The modification would, as he said Thursday and reiterated in his Sunday, May 21 speech before the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), would be based on appropriate land “swaps” to reflect demographic realities (i.e. to accommodate at least some of the Israeli settlements that now increasingly dot the West Bank). This basis of an agreement, as he said again on Sunday, is nothing novel or revolutionary and has been the dominant assumption among analysts privately and certainly within academic circles for some time. It is not, however, a position embraced (to put it mildly), by the current Israeli governing coalition, and Obama’s speech was given the day before the chief opponent of a 1967-based solution, Benjamin Netanyahu, was scheduled to arrive in Washington and meet with the President at the White House. Thus the fun began!
The President argued that a resumption of the peace talks was necessary, because, as he said, “The status quo is unsustainable,” and that talks aimed toward producing a peace agreement must start with the pre-1967 borders as their refderence point in order to have a chance of attaining peace. Although the predictable, ritual knee-jerk anti-Obamaites wailed the President was giving away Israel’s security (for instance, Senator Linday Graham of South Carolina, one of the “three amigos” from an earlier column on Libya in this space) by insisting that Israel retreat to these borders. Among those who most forcefully rejected this idea was, of course, Netanyahu, who argued that the pre-1967 borders were “indefensible” for Israel and did not reflect “demographic realities” on the West Bank (the proliferation of settlements literally all over the West Bank). The unsustainable met the indefensible on Friday at the White House, and post-meeting photo-op session did not, to put it mildly, exude warmth.
Obama was quickly pilloried by the political right in both Israel and the United States for proposing to sell out Israeli security and for being “anti-Israeli.” Much of this, of course, was pure rhetorical bombast: in the United States, it reflected the inability of his partisan opponents to accept anything Obama does as correct (killing bin Laden is a partial exception) and the implicit fear that any admission of Obama competence might hurt their chances in the 2012 election. In Israel, the Netanyahu coalition, which would fall instantly if it lost the support of West Bank settlers in whom the concept of a 1967 border solution in any form justifiably evokes fear of losing their homes, predictably leaped forward in very loud opposition. Netanyahu’s objection tapped this sentiment as well as his personal commitment to a “Greater Israel”; Israeli indefinite retention of the West Bank helps insure military security, allows greater settlement, and fulfills his dream of an historical Israel that incorporates Judea and Sumaria (both on the West Bank).
In his Sunday speech, Obama sought to explain his objectives. He began by reiterating (and he did say the same things on Thursday) the absolute commitment of the United States to Israel’s existence and security and to “maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge” in the region. That this commitment was even questioned reflected the sheer hysteria with which the Israeli right both in Israel and the United States responds to any suggestion of changing the status quo.
The heart of Obama’s position, shared by a large portion of the international community, is that Israeli (and Palestinian) obstinence in the stalled peace process in unsustainable. On Sunday, Obama argued that continuing the status quo simply made matters worse in the long run, for four reasons. First, he argued that the only way to sustain the goal of a democratic Jewish state was a peace process based on permanent borders that reflect an adjusted 1967 border, and the demographics of the region support this contention. Second, he argued that the status quo leaves Israel increasingly vulnerable because weapons technologies (rocketry, drones, etc.) becoming available mean that Israeli security (and everybody elses’s) require a durable peace in which those who have those weapons have no incentive to use them. Third, he argued that Arab opposition to the status quo is likely to increase because a “new generation” of Arabs, rather than a few isolated Arab leaders–a direct reference to Egypt–who will increasingly demand change. Fourth, he argued that the international consensus that continuing occupation of what Israel calls the “disputed” or “administered” but the rest of the world calls “occupied” territories will bring the increasing isolation of Israel.
It is also briefly worth mentioning what Obama did not advocate but which has been attributed to him by political opponents. He did not argue that the acceptance of the 1967 borders and withdrawal to them by Israel was a precondition of peace (an action that would endanger Israeli security). Rather, he said that talks should begin with those borders as the long-term reference and a physical reality only to be achieved as the outcome of the peace process. Moreover, no boundary imposition is involved; he repeated on Sunday that the final border would be whatever the Israelis and Palestinians agreed to mutually. Period. Moreover, he did not argue that Israel should be forced into negotiations with Palestinian groups (Hamas) that refused to accept Israeli existence. Rather, the precondition on which he insisted was that Hamas (and anybody else of a similar philosophy) must renounce the destruction of Israel before talks could begin. In both speeches, he was quite explicit on both points, although, predictably (and somewhat pathetically) not everyone wanted to hear all of the truth.
Are the Obama proposals a panacea? Of course not. As he put it himself, they are not even his ideas, but are reflections of positions that some have been taken for years with which he happens to agree (truth in advertising: his Thursday speech sounded as if it had come from my lecture notes on the problem, meaning I happen to agree as well). Will they bring about peace? Nobody is foolhardy enough to predict that (particularly since this is the first day since the world was supposed to have come to an end according to a California radio preacher and his supporters), but it may offer the most promising (or least unpromising) approach available. The only visible option is the status quo, and no one of whom I am aware (including those who oppose the Obama-advocated approach) seems willing publicly to offer an intellectual defense of that prospect.