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Obama Abandons Decades of U.S.-Israeli Diplomacy

Putting aside talk of how President Obama outsourced portions of today’s Middle East address to the speechwriters behind George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural, the President’s diplomatic stance toward Israel was deeply corrosive to the peace process and the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

Obama extended and institutionalized a position that Rick Richman has been hammering for years here on Contentions, one which shrugs off multiple binding letters of assurance that commit the United States to ensuring “defensible borders” for Israel at the conclusion of any peace process. Having abandoned past U.S. assurances on this overarching core issue, the President is now asking the Israelis to take enormous risks—in the aftermath of a Fatah-Hamas merger, no less—based on future U.S. assurances. This frankly bizarre diplomatic and rhetorical strategy seems unlikely to succeed.

The commitment to “defensible borders” was dealt with in letters provided to Jerusalem in 1997 by Secretary of State Warren Christopher and in 2004 by President Bush, written in exchange for Israeli withdrawals from Hebron and the Gaza Strip. In the former case Israel gave up a core claim to ancient Jewish heritage. In the latter case it risked and eventually saw an Iranian proxy occupying Israel’s southern border. Those territorial concessions are functionally irreversible, which is why the US had to provide ironclad assurances in the first place.

The Obama administration, upon taking office, immediately and with public relish unburdened itself of the Bush assurances. On the issue of borders, the White House refused to commit to ensuring “defensible borders,” instead reverting to vague “secure and recognized borders.” The President’s speech this morning continued in that vein, speaking only of “secure and recognized borders . . . for both states.” The gestures that he did make toward Israeli self-defense were untethered from discussions of borders, again—and very pointedly—despite previous American assurances.

“Secure and recognized” borders is an empty phrase grounded in UNSC Resolution 242, where it was used as an placeholder for Israel’s eventual borders. If the phrase had any substantive meaning it was as a rejection of the 1948 armistice lines, but it was left intentionally vague so that the resolution could avoid veto. It’s a diplomatic tautology to support “secure and recognized” borders for Israel. The question is over what the final “secure and recognized” borders will be.

The Israeli answer is that the Jewish State must retain “defensible borders,” a legal, strategic, and diplomatic term of art encompassing a broad range of very explicit Israeli requirements. The phrase encapsulates and describes the specific borders that the Israelis would like to have as their final “secure and recognized” borders, as opposed to other borders. Those are the specific guidelines for which Jerusalem, in exchange for decades of territorial concessions, secured U.S. commitments from Democratic and Republican administrations. Israel gave up Hebron and the Gaza Strip, in other words, so that the U.S. would support these precise “defensible borders” as Israel’s “secure and recognized” borders.

The Obama administration’s continued rhetoric of “secure and recognized” borders opens up a question that was previously settled. It resets negotiations, except now Israel is starting out without the territory it has already abandoned. In addition to betraying an ally and signaling to the world that U.S. assurances are worthless, this approach is poisonous to the peace process.

The diplomatic crisis triggered in 2009 was not just about the White House’s specific demands regarding settlements and borders. It was about the broader spectacle of binding U.S. assurances that—in the style of a banana republic—evaporate from one government to the next. An Israeli diplomat at the time noted angrily that Israel had negotiated an agreement with the United States of America, not with the Bush Administration.

The legacy of the White House’s diplomatic offensive continues to hover over the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Last November the Obama administration made a last-ditch push to secure an extension of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s settlement freeze, Palestinian President Abbas having run out the clock over the previous ten months. The efforts collapsed after Israeli diplomats, fresh off 18 months of watching in amazement as the administration casually discarded previous agreements, demanded that American commitments be put in writing. The White House refused, and the deal collapsed, a victim of distrust sown by the administration’s past actions.

Now the President is asking the Israelis to believe that, should they make further concessions, the U.S. ensure a demilitarized Palestinian state and will provide them with diplomatic cover during self-defense operations. It would be interesting to know on what, exactly, he expects the Israelis to base their faith.



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