President Barack Obama’s speeches at the State Department and to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee provoked strong and diverse reactions in the Jewish community. Some castigated the president, particularly for his reference to the pre-1967 lines “with land swaps” as the basis for Palestinian-Israeli talks. Others lauded Mr. Obama for his clear support for Israel as a Jewish state and for his emphasis on negotiations, not on imposed or unilateral steps.
Overall, I come out more on the side of these addresses representing a marked improvement in the president’s evolution regarding Israel and the region. We appreciate Mr. Obama’s effort to lay out his goals for U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa, with some significant new perspectives on the peace process. And we welcome his efforts to clarify what he meant with respect to his views of the 1967 lines, Israel’s security, and Hamas.
Even with regard to his comments on the pre-1967 lines, which would have been better left unsaid, he in no way presented them as a prerequisite for starting negotiations, which was his great blunder when he introduced the settlements issue early in his administration.
And yet, the genie is out of the bottle.
Even though the president never made the 1967 lines a prerequisite for talks, it can easily become so unless specifically rejected as such. I’m concerned that the pre-1967 lines will become a precondition for talks with the Palestinians, much in the same way a full settlement freeze became the major sticking point at the outset of the Obama administration’s peacemaking efforts. It prejudges an extremely sensitive issue, one that the president will have a tough time walking back.
This was evident in the Palestinian response to Mr. Obama’s speech. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, made clear he is waiting for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “to accept the doctrine of two states on the 1967 line with agreed swaps.” This came despite the president’s clarification at AIPAC that final borders must be resolved “by the parties themselves” through negotiations, and are not a foregone conclusion.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in a recent interview with Newsweek, described how the Obama administration led the Palestinians “up the tree” with its insistence on a full freeze on Israeli settlement-building, only to retreat down that tree and remove the ladder, leaving the Palestinians stranded on a high limb and calling for them to “jump.” As a result of Obama’s latest speeches, that settlements tree is no longer standing. But now we have a new set of issues, including borders, which could either provide a new way forward or end in a cul-de-sac.
The real test will be how Washington approaches these issues over the next few months. Here’s a few of the things that need to happen to ensure the themes expressed by the president begin to take form:
â€¢ The United States must impress on the Europeans that it is counterproductive and dangerous for them not to oppose a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September. This means demanding the Europeans use their influence with the Palestinians and the Arabs to try to forestall the bringing of a declaration of statehood to the U.N. in the first place.
â€¢ Washington must make clear to President Abbas that the recent Fatah unity agreement with Hamas undermines the credibility of the Palestinian Authority regarding peace with Israel. Fatah must publicly reject any role for the terrorist group in their government, unless Hamas recognizes Israel, renounces violence, and accepts previous agreements. This must also include finally and permanently abandoning the use of anti-Semitism to justify its goal of eliminating the Jewish state.
If Hamas does not fundamentally change, the Palestinian Authority will have to take steps to separate itself from Hamas. Failing that, the U.S. must support Israel’s unwillingness to talk to a governing authority that includes a terrorist, rejectionist, and anti-Semitic organization.
â€¢ If, in fact, the Hamas issue is resolved, the U.S. must also show that the president’s statements that peace can only come through negotiations between the parties and not through any outside impositions. Only through this approach can it be determined whether peace is possible and compromise is achievable, particularly with regards to finding a solution to the Palestinian need for territory and Israel’s need for secure borders.
â€¢ Finally, the president’s extremely important iteration that Israel must be accepted as a Jewish state sets the stage for important messages to the Palestinians. The refusal of the Palestinians to acknowledge Israel as Jewish is one of several examples of positions and steps that raise questions as to whether they have made the leap toward accepting Israel’s legitimacy. When the Palestinians refused to accept then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s formulation of an end of the conflict at Camp David in 2000, it raised alarms as to whether they saw negotiations as a means to live in peace with Israel or as a stage in a continuing conflict.
There still is reason to wonder. There’s no evidence the Palestinians have backed off their longstanding demand of the “right of return” of refugees. This issue, more than any other, is the indicator of where the Palestinians stand. As long as they maintain their position, then there is good reason to conclude they haven’t really accepted Israel’s legitimacy and that negotiations remain a means to a sinister end. That is why it was disappointing the president did not address this issue directly and clearly. He needs to find an occasion in the near future to do so.
President Obama needs to make clear he understands this issue threatens Israel’s identity and has too often been used as a weapon against Israel. Any solution to the refugee problem must be one that does not threaten Israel and its Jewish character, and must primarily lie within a Palestinian state, just as the solution to the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands was found within the state of Israel.
In sum, the president’s back-to-back speeches on the peace process had much good to build on. Now is the time to start building.