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Something Definitely New: Experts Weigh in on Obama’s Statement on Israeli Borders

If President Obama didn’t fundamentally break with past U.S. diplomacy towards Israel, abandoning U.S. assurances about “defensible borders” in favor of a formulation pushing Israel back to its pre-1967 borders plus land swaps, that’s going to be news to a lot of people.

It will be news to veteran diplomat David Aaron Miller, who stated that “no American president has ever used this formulation before.” Ditto for Obama surrogate and former Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler, who celebrated how the speech altered U.S. policy in fundamental ways. And someone should probably reassure Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was moved to immediately issue a blunt and hastily written pushback to the President’s statement and to call on the White House to embrace the “defensible borders” and settlement bloc commitments spelled out in the Bush letters – which for some reason the Israeli government believes the White House doesn’t.

There’s also Robert Satloff, Washington Institute executive director and Howard P. Berkowitz chair in U.S. Middle East policy, who posted a particularly explicit and expansive description of how the President’s speech “constitute[d] a major departure from long-standing U.S. policy… [moving] substantially toward the Palestinian position.” On the specific issue of borders, Satloff outlined how Obama’s position broke with four decades of U.S. peacemaking:

President Obama is the first sitting president to say that the final borders should be “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” (The Clinton Parameters — which, it is important to note, President Clinton officially withdrew before he left office — did not mention the 1967 borders, but did mention “swaps and other territorial arrangements.”) The Obama formulation concretizes a move away from four decades of U.S. policy based on UN Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967, which has always interpreted calls for an Israeli withdrawal to a “secure and recognized” border as not synonymous with the pre-1967 boundaries. The idea of land swaps, which may very well be a solution that the parties themselves choose to pursue, sounds very different when endorsed by the president of the United States. In effect, it means that the U.S. view is that resolution of the territorial aspect of the conflict can only be achieved if Israel cedes territory it held even before the 1967 war.

Satloff goes on to explain how Obama broke with the Clinton parameters on Israel’s security requirements, dropped the Bush June 2002 benchmarks on Palestinian democratization, and – broadly – emphasized Palestinian concerns while leaving out core issues on which the Palestinians would be expected to make compromises.

Keep in mind that all of this is happening against the backdrop of the recent Fatah-Hamas merger, which should have counseled a move in Israel’s direction. Evaluated objectively, bracketing ideology, the administration’s policy of encouraging Israeli concessions was crafted for a political environment in which Fatah controlled the Palestinian Authority. In the aftermath of a Fatah-Hamas unity agreement, that political environment doesn’t exist any more. Had the President stuck to the status quo – neglecting to abandon four decades of U.S. diplomacy – it would have seemed merely obtuse. The right would be saying that the President didn’t recognize how the situation on the ground had changed, the left would be saying that the President was sophisticated showing Fatah that there was a benefit to be gained from splitting with Hamas, and everyone would go back to their corners.

Instead the President chose now to codify “the 1967 borders,” after the unity agreement and after Abbas signaled as well as any human can that he was rejecting the White House. Instead of moving the Palestinian back to the table, this repeats the White House’s 2009 mistake on settlements. Unable to be less pro-Palestinian than the US President, the Palestinians now have to take this new position as their starting point. Since it’s a starting point that’s unacceptable to the Israelis, negotiations will remain moribund.

If this wasn’t just a continuation of this White House’s hostility toward the diplomatic sensibilities and security requirements of our Israeli allies, it’d be inexplicable.


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