In his address to AIPAC on Sunday, President Obama—attempting to do furious damage control—asserted that his speech the previous Thursday, arguing that negotiations for a Palestinian state should be based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders, was old hat. “There was nothing particularly original in my proposal,” Mr. Obama said reassuringly; “this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. Administrations. . . . It was my reference to the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps that received the lion’s share of the attention,” he said later in the same speech. “And since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what ‘1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps’ means.”
In fact, as the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler points out,
In the context of this history [Israel’s borders], Obama’s statement Thursday represented a major shift. He did not articulate the 1967 boundaries as a “Palestinian goal” but as U.S. policy. He also dropped any reference to “realities on the ground”— code for Israeli settlements—that both Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton had used. He further suggested that Israel’s military would need to agree to leave the West Bank. Obama did not go all the way and try to define what his statement meant for the disputed city of Jerusalem, or attempt to address the issue of Palestinians who want to return to lands now in the state of Israel. He said those issues would need to be addressed after borders and security are settled. But, for a U.S. president, the explicit reference to the 1967 lines represented crossing the Rubicon.
Kessler does us the favor of quoting presidents from Lyndon Johnson in 1968 (“It is clear, however, that a return to the situation of 4 June 1967 will not bring peace. There must be secure and there must be recognized borders”) to Ronald Reagan in 1982 (“In the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely ten miles wide at its narrowest point. The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again”). Their views were decidedly not Obama’s views.
As in so many other areas of our national life, President Obama is staking out a position that is fairly extreme by ordinary American standards. But his positions on Israel are not extraordinary by the standards of America’s elite colleges and universities. In those precincts, what the president argued—which is essentially that the burden rests on Israel to make the “hard choices” for peace—is common fare. Among those on the left, Israel is the problem, the cause of unrest, the alien state, the aggressive power. And the only reasonable approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict is to put pressure squarely on Israel to make unilateral concessions in order to jumpstart the “peace process.”
This view is, in every one of its particulars, not only wrong but the opposite of reality. Yet this worldview appears to dominate the thinking of the president. And my own theory—a theory originally advanced by Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal—is that the explanation for this, at least in part, is that Obama has been marinated in the ideology of the modern academy, where hostility to Israel is not only widespread but very nearly uniform.
There are, thankfully, political realities that act on a check on the president’s more irresponsible impulses. But his premises and predilections seem to have their roots in places like Columbia and Harvard. And that may well explain why the president is so puzzled. He articulated a position that was, for academics, a given. He is abruptly finding out that what is assumed to be true at Columbia and Harvard isn’t true for the parts of the nation.
The president may think there was nothing particularly original in his proposal, but the fierce response he generated on the matter of Israel’s borders is evidence that there was. Once again Obama shows that, as much as any president in modern times, he is blind to his own ideological prejudices. The rest of us are not.