In a major policy address on events in the Middle East at the State Department, President Barack Obama said the United States supports a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine based on the pre-war 1967 borders.
This is not something you expect to hear from a U.S. president, even less from a president up for re-election next year. To venture such a bold move, you have to either possess incredible self-confidence or bend the truth slightly in your public statements; or you could spell out the official position while having something else in mind; or any combination of the three. The powerful pro-Israel lobby is still a factor and can have a significant impact on Obama’s re-election chances.
Obama’s statement was even more daring considering that it was made ahead of a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu on May 20. Obama is also due to speak on Saturday at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group.
Netanyahu already said ahead of his trip to Washington that a return to 1967 borders was unacceptable because it would leave Israel “indefensible.”
But Obama’s call for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders does not, in fact, represent a major shift in American policy. The White House has silently accepted the 1967 borders (before the Six Day War) for ten years already. Both Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican President George W. Bush pushed for this border framework during closed-door talks with Israel. They also tried unsuccessfully to convince Israel to accept it.
Obama is distinguished by the fact that he is the first president to declare this position officially in a public forum. That was certainly brave, even though it won’t be enough to jumpstart the peace process.
It is worth quoting his exact words here.
“The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”
In diplomacy, going public is action. It is not just a symbolic gesture. It creates a framework for negotiations.
If Obama had stopped here, his statement would have been viewed as a remarkable breakthrough and a shift in While House policy. If he had stopped here, Netanyahu might not have flown to Washington at all. Israel is against returning to the 1967 borders, before it captured Eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in the Six Day War.
Arabs must be given their due
But Obama did not stop there because he could not afford to. For the past twenty years, every U.S. president has faced the agonizing task of trying to balance Israeli and Arab interests in the Middle East. No president has made it through unscathed. It is no easy task to reconcile the irreconcilable, especially through a set of inconsistent policies. And U.S. policy in the Middle East has been nothing if not inconsistent. Obama is now dealing with the accumulated inheritance of a dozen presidents, starting with Dwight Eisenhower.
That is why he said in his speech that the United States does not share Palestine’s determination to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September (an approach supported by a growing number of nations). He expressed his support for a sovereign, de-militarized Palestinian state and for a secure Jewish state.
Many were taken aback by Obama referring to Israel “as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people,” and “the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people.” Palestinians believe that would automatically strip hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees of their right to return to their stolen land. And what about the democratic rights of thousands of Israeli Arabs?
Alexander Haig, a U.S. Army general who served as Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan, said 30 years ago: “Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk….and is located in critical region for American national security.” It is hard to break free from this kind of mentality.
In fact, it is harder for Obama than for any of his predecessors. It’s become harder and harder for him to maneuver between Jews and Arabs, especially after the challenges Obama inherited from Bush’s term and those that occurred on his watch: the Arab revolutions, the bombing of Libya, the death of Osama bin Laden, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama simply had to give something to the Arabs to maintain the balance shattered by U.S. policy.
Obama was wise to support the pro-democracy uprisings in North Africa, even if six months too late. But here, too, he failed to avoid inconsistency and double standards. While Obama praised the revolutionaries and issued a mild reprimand to Bahrain for suppressing the protests, he completely ignored Saudi Arabia. Although not an advanced democracy, Saudi Arabia is still America’s main oil ally in the region.
For the Arabs, the peace process between Israel and Palestine remains the key measure of relations between the West and the Muslim world. As such, Obama’s speech surely must have proved disappointing. It was the same old, same old, albeit in elegant packaging.
Incidentally, Netanyahu’s visit to Washington was preceded by an announcement of the construction of another 1,500 homes in new settlements in the occupied territories.
Six months into the Arab Spring Obama has finally taken the trouble to spell out his country’s policy in the Arab world, but he hasn’t gone anywhere beyond that. His speech at the State Department was not even close to a Cairo-2. In 2009, he told students at Cairo University he was going to shake up the Middle East, make friends with the Arabs and achieve peace; but none of that came to pass.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.