President Obama hadn’t yet finished his Middle East policy speech this afternoon before his Democratic supporters had begun describing it as not only highly supportive of Israel but consistent with the policies enunciated by President George W. Bush.
Bush became the first U.S. president to endorse a Palestinian state, but he coupled his endorsement with demands that any Palestinian state must eschew terrorism and embrace democracy. He also formally declared in a 2004 letter to then prime minister Ariel Sharon that any peace agreement must take into account the changes on the ground that had taken place since June 1967 when Israel came into possession of the West Bank and unified Jerusalem during the course of a defensive war. That letter was recognition of the fact that Israel would never retreat from Jerusalem or from the major settlement blocs where most of the Jewish population in the territories lived. In return, Sharon moved to withdraw completely from Gaza and some parts of the West Bank.
Democrats and other Obama supporters are interpreting Obama’s decision to state explicitly that any future peace agreement must be based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed territorial swaps as being largely equivalent to Bush’s pledge. But that is a complete misreading of the president’s speech.
What Bush did was to put the Palestinians and the rest of the world on notice that the United States would back Israel’s desire to hold onto Jerusalem and the settlements in the context of real peace. This strengthened Israel’s negotiating position as it made it clear that any demands for a compete surrender of the West Bank and Jerusalem were off the table.
What Obama has done is something radically different.
Establishing the 1967 lines as the near-sacred starting point for negotiations means that rather than Israel’s presence in Jerusalem and in parts of the territories being treated as a given, the Jewish state will have to fight for this land in the context of peace talks where its presence there has already been branded as illegitimate. Just like his previous demands for unilateral Israeli concessions such as the settlement freeze, Obama’s endorsement of the 1967 lines means no Palestinian negotiator will ever agree to Israel holding onto an inch of land in Jerusalem or the West Bank. Obama’s embrace of the 1967 borders will also make it easier, not harder, to win United Nations approval of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state without peace talks or recognition of Israel. Even worse, his statement will buttress the efforts of those who will argue after such a resolution is passed that Israel’s presence in Jerusalem and the territories is illegal.
Although no American government has ever formally recognized Israel’s right to hold onto territory won in June 1967, Obama’s embrace of the ’67 lines (like the his previous condemnation of Jewish building in Jerusalem as illegal) is unprecedented. It tilts the diplomatic playing field even further in the direction of the Palestinians. Though he, and his supporters, insist that his speech will help Israel and ensure its future, he has done nothing of the kind.