Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Curious Interpretation of International Borders

The Associated Press touched off a round of Knesset-ology yesterday when it reported, based on an Israeli TV report, Benjamin Netanyahu “has agreed to negotiate the borders of a Palestinian state based on the cease-fire line that marks off the West Bank.” The story termed this a “dramatic policy shift.”

Was Netanyahu now capitulating to President Obama’s declaration that negotiations start at the 1949 armistice lines? Did something change? Unfortunately, the subsequent articles in the Israeli and American press weren’t much help. Both sides are being vague about what it actually means, but it’s all based on one question: whether the 1949 armistice lines (also referred to as the 1967 lines) should be treated as though they constitute an international border. Curiously, however, we were given a reminder this week of an actual international border where U.S. assets have been attacked and its clear boundary recognition ignored. Yet the president, far from giving a national speech hectoring the leader of that country (as he did to Netanyahu) seems unmoved.

Last week, Eli Lake reported U.S. intelligence officials have confirmed a previous claim by Georgia that a bomb blast at the American embassy in Tbilisi last year was carried out by the Russian military. “It is written without hedges, and it confirms the Georgian account,” an American official told Lake.

In a follow-up, Lake reported the Russian intelligence (GRU) officer suspected, Maj. Yevgeny Borisov, remains at his post in the Georgian province of Abkhazia–a clear swipe at American officials’ concern:

Some U.S. intelligence officials complained that the U.S. reaction to the possible state-sponsored terrorism has been too weak. “The fact that this GRU major is still at large in Abkhazia should tell you all you need to know about how effective our response has been,” one U.S. intelligence official said.

Normally, intelligence officers who are exposed by another government are recalled home and their careers are cut short.

In today’s edition of the New York Times, Ellen Barry received a response from Russia’s foreign ministry to Friday’s Senate resolution describing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as “occupied by the Russian Federation.” The statement was utterly dismissive of the U.S. government’s right to declare borders in Russia/Georgia: “The statement of the American senators about this testifies either to illiteracy of international law, or else complete disregard for the real facts.”

And what are those real facts? Barry explains:

Little has changed on the ground since Russia and Georgia agreed to a cease-fire after five days of combat in August 2008. The French-brokered deal required Russia to withdraw its troops to prewar positions, but Russia then argued that its recognition of the two enclaves nullified that commitment. Although the United States has maintained that Russia is in violation, the dispute has been soft-pedaled amid efforts to work cooperatively with Moscow on issues like Iran’s nuclear program and the war in Afghanistan.

So the Russian line is since it declared South Ossetia and Abkhazia to be its possession, the matter is solved. The U.S. has not fought the Russians on this, because we’re trying to get their cooperation on other matters. It is interesting to see–whether or not you agree with the president’s position on either issue–the difference in the way the administration practices statecraft with regard to Russia and Israel.

Russia invaded another country’s sovereign territory, crossing international borders and refusing to give up their claim to land inside Georgia. Our response is not to challenge them on it. Israel, however, is quite clearly our ally with whom we have a great relationship that benefits our national interests in the Middle East. The White House’s response is to browbeat Netanyahu into recognizing lines that are explicitly not international borders to bring him in line with the president’s disregard for Israelis living on the other side. It’s quite a contrast.