The following piece was written by me Saturday on a flight to Washington, DC for the 2011 AIPAC Policy Conference attended by over 10,000 people. Of course since then, President Obama spoke on Sunday to the plenary of the Conference, and changed the context of this writing. There is disagreement among some, but the vast majority of the attendees, by their reaction to the President`s speech, did not approve of his Thursday speech to the State Department, but were heartened by his remarks on Sunday. That is a mere three days later. Why? As has been reported, the President “walked back” the very remarks that prompted my writing on the plane to DC. Please keep this in mind as you read the following.
But before that, I believe the President has made the best move he could do under the circumstances, that is, to try to lay out his Middle East policy on Israel as having been “misunderstood” on Thursday and re-stated for clarification on Sunday. However, he has clearly hurt himself because, though the crowd was heartened by his Sunday remarks, they also clearly understand that those clarifications are still in contradiction to his remarks on Thursday. Former Representative Robert Wexler, Democrat from Florida, for instance, was on the defensive in various forums as he tried to make the case that President Obama was not only consistent from Thursday to Sunday, but merely misunderstood and decidedly committed to Israel’s security In those forums, and with that line of reasoning, he was overwhelmingly not supported. I find this same dynamic throughout the conference.
Here is my take on the Thursday speech by President Obama:
In the closing days of the Clinton White House, with time pressing on the President to conclude the Camp David peace negotiations between the Israeli PM Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, and having already failed, the President famously said that the negotiations reached to that point would have to be the starting point of any subsequent Presidential attempt to solve the Middle East conundrum. In other words, he simply stated what he thought was the obvious: that the outlines of a negotiated settlement between the parties were already drawn under his tutelage and any future deal would have to have the same outlines. His Camp David negotiations were the final outcome of nearly eight years of talks between the parties and all details had already been worked out.
This is the same point Obama’s advisor, Dennis Ross, who ran the negotiations for Clinton as well, said about the end result of Clinton’s attempted conclusion to the Oslo Accords.
So when President Barack Obama says the 1967 lines are the starting point of negotiations with the Palestinians and the Israelis, one can see how the Israelis see this as a raw deal. After years of negotiations since the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, after countless concessions by the Israelis and numerous promises by US administrations concerning US guarantees and quid pro quos, President Obama has taken all this back and given the Palestinians a new starting point–the same one that came in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War. It does not even recognize UN Security Council Resolution 242, which explicitly made the pre-1967 cease-fire lines demarcations, not necessarily ones to which Israel had to retreat in any subsequent negotiations for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
I have heard Saudi Prince Awalaweed say in an interview that according to Resolution 242, Israel must go back to these pre-1967 lines, but he is simply lying about this. This is the Arab and Palestinian modus operandi, to lie about their obligations, commitments and actions. The International Law on this is clear and easily found.
Yet President Obama is so willing to give the edge to the Palestinians that he is willing to ignore this history as well. He is willing to go against commitments the USA has already made to the Israelis, such as President Bush’s 2004 commitment to Israel that in return for giving up the Gaza Strip and vacating an Israeli presence there, the US recognizes, as did the US Congress, that Israel explicitly does not have to go back to the 1967 lines. This counter-commitment behavior on the part of this Administration is egregious.
But even more so, it is disastrous foreign policy. How can the Israelis feel comfortable with US promises when they can abrogate them at will? How much confidence should Israel even feel in President Obama’s words? None. It also gives the Palestinians the idea that they can hold out for even further concessions and that they do not need to conclude peace when the world will eventually give them Israel on a silver platter anyway.
The result: higher probability of Palestinian intransigence and therefore more war and strife. President Obama will not get Israel to go against commitments already made by the US. So this is a sad chapter in which a President who has the ear of the Arab world could have instead pushed the Arabs and the Palestinians to honor their commitments.
President Obama’s initiative will go nowhere, but he may succeed in further isolating a besieged ally, Israel.