The Palestinian reaction to Israel’s position about West Bank settlement blocs once again demonstrates that rather seeking an agreement that will lead to a Palestinian state, what they are doing is looking for an excuse to avoid ever having to sign a peace deal. Even worse, it is evidence that President Obama’s misguided intervention into the question of future borders last May is still having a harmful effect on the effort to revive negotiations.
The Israeli position in the discussions taking place in Jordan is they want the major settlement blocs (which comprise a tiny portion of the West Bank’s territory but also the vast majority of the more than 250,000 Jews who live there) to be incorporated into Israel as part of a deal. But rather than negotiate this point, the Palestinians have rejected it out of hand and said they won’t talk if the Israelis stick to their position. Israel’s position is compatible even with President Obama’s stand on the issue which allows for territorial swaps that would enable Israel to retain these blocs. But even though the president’s Jewish defenders claim his May 2011 speech merely restated existing policies, the Palestinian interpretation seems to illustrate how damaging his mention of the 1967 lines has been.
By stating that a Middle East peace deal should be negotiated on the basis of the 1967 lines, Obama strengthened the Palestinians’ belief that their demands for a complete Israeli retreat and the eviction of every Jew living in the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem had America’s tacit backing. Though Obama quickly followed up with a reassurance that he backed the idea of territorial swaps that would allow Israel to try to keep some settlements, the Palestinians viewed that as inconsequential, as the president had buttressed their position that a return to the status quo of June 4, 1967 was an imperative.
The Palestinians approach the West Bank–an area to which no sovereign nation had a claim that the world recognized in 1967–as theirs without any need to negotiate. Indeed, they are even incredulous at the notion that Israel has any claim or rights. Israel’s position is the West Bank is disputed territory, not Palestinian. By speaking of 1967 as the starting point, Obama tacitly endorsed the Palestinian position that the West Bank was “stolen” from them, even though they never owned it in the first place.
Given the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement and the impending changes in Palestinian politics that this will cause, there is no reason to believe the PA will ever agree to any peace deal that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. But what Israel is doing here is explicitly demonstrating that even the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, derided by the American left for its supposed opposition to peace, is once again offering the Palestinians a state in most of the West Bank and Gaza. But rather than pursuing this opportunity and seeking to use the certain support of the United States and the European Union to better their negotiating position, the Palestinian Authority is merely looking a for a way out of the talks.
The irony is that although the Obama administration has always wanted to further peace talks, its every effort to achieve that goal has made it more difficult. Just as the president’s unprecedented demands for an Israeli building freeze even in Jerusalem made it impossible for the Palestinians to negotiate for anything less, so, too has Obama’s borders blunder given the PA an excuse to avoid talking about creating a viable border between Israel and a putative Palestinian state.