Not so fast.
In an ill-timed speech earlier this week, President Obama declared his vision for peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors:
The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states... 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... non-militarized state.(Emphasis mine.)
The pro-Israel community has reacted strongly, but the plain fact is that the President's remarks were neither surprising nor novel. Yes, it's true: Mr. Obama did make reference to the hated, illegitimate, and (in Prime Minister Netanyahu's words) "indefensible" 1949 armistice lines (commonly—but misleadingly—referred to in diplomatic and media circles as the "1967 lines"). But pundits seem to have overlooked the fact that he qualified his statement carefully, carving a vitally important semantic safe harbor. As my son has observed, the phrase "with mutually agreed swaps" essentially leaves every option open.
|(White House Photo)|
And let's be honest: the armistice lines, with modifications, have formed the basis for negotiations since there has been anything to negotiate about. Israeli governments have offered the Palestinians nearly all the territory captured in 1967, with adjustments for demographic changes and large settlements (mostly, suburbs of Jerusalem) that have appeared in the decades since. Few harbor any illusion that a final deal, if one is ever reached, will differ substantially from those on the table previously. (According to reports, the President resisted calls from within his administration to outline a tougher stance, even accepting the resignation of his hand-picked envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, barely a week prior to the address.)
Although Jewish groups had mobilized against the President's invocation of the armistice lines in the days leading up to the speech, it is difficult to ask the leader of the free world to be more conservative in his dealings with the Palestinians than the Israelis themselves have been. If this President, or any other, is seen as a hostage to Israeli policy, his effectiveness—and, ultimately, his ability to wield American leverage to Israel's advantage—will only be weakened.
So what, if anything, was new in Mr. Obama's message? To my ears, the real novelty was the use of the phrase "non-militarized" in referring to the future Palestinian state. Ultimately, if one believes, as indeed most Israelis do, in a two-state solution, one can hardly expect a better outcome than "mutually agreed" borders and a "non-militarized" Palestine.
It's also useful to review what the President did not do. He did not summon the parties to negotiations. He did not issue new peremptory demands on Israel, as he disastrously attempted to do in 2009. He did not threaten that a solution would be imposed by the United States; in fact, he said quite the opposite. And, ultimately, he did no harm to Mr. Netanyahu, who is certainly going to reap political rewards at home for his direct and immediate dismissal of the President's vision.
Mr. Obama's real mistake is not in his formulation but in his focus. This should be a time of great hope. The long-suppressed bill of grievances of the Arab everyman has finally been aired, and there is nary a word about Israel. Poverty, ignorance, and oppression have been revealed as the essential casus belli of the Middle East, not the presence a few million Jews on a narrow strip of previously neglected real estate. Now is not the time to bury the lead of Arab self-liberation within the mythology of Israeli misbehavior. In trying to make history, Mr. Obama has instead misjudged it, shining a light on Israeli/Palestinian discord just as it was becoming clear how small a role that conflict actually plays in the larger tragedy of the Arab Middle East.
Does anybody remember what the President said about Iran in his address? About Syria? Egypt? Has there been any coverage at all of any topic raised by Mr. Obama in three-quarters of an hour of continuous speaking besides the Israeli/Palestinian matter? Through his insistence on dredging up that issue, Mr. Obama gave the remaining strongmen of the Arab world the one gift they most wanted: an alternative target for the world's reprobation. You're welcome, Muammar.
The drama will continue to play out this weekend at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC. With 10,000 supporters of the American-Israel relationship in attendance, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will each have an opportunity further to lay out his vision for peace and security for Israel and the region. Netanyahu is guaranteed a warm and welcoming reception, but, having chosen this time to refocus on Israel, the President will have to work hard to win over an audience understandably suspicious of his priorities.