Commentary Magazine


There Was Plenty That Was New About Israel In Obama’s Speech

Jeffrey Goldberg is expressing himself underwhelmed by the President’s call for Israel to revert to the 1948 armistice lines plus land swaps, stating that there’s “nothing new” in the the policy for either the administration or the United States. On the former issue he links to a 2009 statement by Secretary of State Clinton, and on the latter he gestures toward White House positions going back “at least 12 years.” Skepticism over whether the President’s position on borders represent anything new is certainly not limited to the center-left, but Goldberg’s post is admirably explicit and precise in laying out the issues.

The two issues – continuity going back to previous administrations and continuity with Obama administration policy – should be taken on their own. But just preliminarily, it’s worth noting that they very clearly can’t both be true. It’s one or the other or neither, but not both. The entire point of Obama’s 2009 diplomatic offensive against Israel, the one being described by Secretary Clinton, the one that involved abandoning previous U.S. assurances on “defensible borders,” was that it was a radical break from previous American diplomacy. For the first time ever there was going to be daylight between the United States and Israel. Disagreements would be aired in public. It was a “sea change.”

So — and not to belabor the point — the President’s position today was either a return to the policies of previous administrations (it wasn’t) or it was a continuation of this White House’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking (yes).

Taking the two issues separately:

(1) On the question of whether the President’s call reflects policy stretching back two administrations, what’s lacking is context. Presidents Bush and Clinton certainly envisioned a final status agreement somehow involving the 1949 lines, but their versions also included a bevy of other security and diplomatic arrangements. The newness of Obama’s policy lies in taking the part of the equation that deprives Israel of strategic depth and then subtracting all the guarantees. Perhaps this is what Goldberg was getting at — from a certain angle his post could certainly be read that way, dealing as it does with Obama’s demand that Israel abandon the Jordan Valley — but if so then it’s misleading to imply that Obama’s speech was anything but a departure from previous U.S. diplomacy in the region.

There’s a reason why Prime Minister Netanyahu is at this very moment calling on the Obama administration to live up to the 2004 Bush letter of assurance, as if the Israelis can’t quite believe that the President would abandon decades of assurances and then offer up new assurances in the same breath.

Given the break with the past that the President’s position represents, we should also probably be more generous to those expressing a bit of surprise. An American President who has credibility in living up to U.S. security assurances, and who then calls on Jerusalem to take U.S.-backed risks for peace, is unremarkable. An American President who abandons decades of assurances on core issues, and who then calls for a final status agreement that would codify the maximum public demands of the Palestinian authority, is at the very least going out on a limb. Even if it is just a reiteration of his administration’s past policies.

(2) Which brings up the degree to which today’s positions line up with existing Obama administration policy, and Goldberg is right to point out that they’re thoroughly consistent. The question here is why?

The administration’s multiple diplomatic offensives against Israel have been widely acknowledged as failures. Secretary of State Clinton predicted that it would lead to “the resumption of the negotiation track,” which it didn’t. Palestinian President Abbas admitted that Obama’s fixation on settlements was a White House-driven initiative that made it impossible for the Palestinians to come to the table. All of that is broadly acknowledged, even in the White House itself.

So while it should be acknowledged that the President stuck to a policy running from 2009 to today – in contrast to the policies in comparison to which they were a “sea change,” the policies of previous administrations – the question is why. It’s not a strategy that had traditionally paid dividends.