President Obama reiterated to the roughly 11,000 attendees gathered for this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington his administration’s support for Israel. Obama reaffirmed his belief that any future negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians should be based on the 1967 borders as the starting point.
However, as Obama took pains to detail that the 1967 border should be negotiated to allow for Israeli settlements that have since been constructed and should take into account Israeli security needs. Importantly, any negotiations in President Obama’s estimate will include land swaps. “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” the president told the largely receptive audience. The president also addressed any controversies surrounding his comments made last week during his Middle East policy speech at the State Department that touched on the Arab Spring and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
According to Obama, “And since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what ‘1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps’ means. By definition, it means that the parties themselves -– Israelis and Palestinians -– will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967…That’s what mutually agreed-upon swaps means. It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.”
Obama used his speech to AIPAC to respond to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who had forcefully denounced the president’s comments at the State Department earlier in the week. Along with arguing that Israeli and Palestinian talks should use the 1967 borders as a starting point and include land swaps, Obama also challenged Israel “to make the hard choices that are necessary to protect a Jewish and democratic state for which so many generations have sacrificed.”
The Obama administration has calculated that with the Arab Spring sweeping many Middle Eastern and African states, Israel and the United States would be viewed favorably by many Arabs for attempting to jump start the stalled peace process with the Palestinians. However extraordinary the step was for a sitting American president to publicly endorse a peace plan based on the 1967 borders, officials in the administration have pointed out that such a proposal has been floated since the 1990s.
Moreover, as President Obama articulated in his AIPAC speech, his predecessors have discussed such a proposal privately for quite some time with their Israeli counterparts. “What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately. I’ve done so because we can’t afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades to achieve peace,” the president said.
Presidents Clinton and Bush had pushed for the idea several times during their failed attempts to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In 2005 President Bush endorsed a two-state solution based on the 1949 Armistice lines. “Any final status agreement must be reached between the two parties, and changes to the 1949 Armistice lines must be mutually agreed to. A viable two-state solution must ensure contiguity of the West Bank, and a state of scattered territories will not work,” President Bush said in 2005.
Netanyahu’s position on the 1967 border question is that such a deal would be unacceptable for Israel. Israel argues that if it were to conform to the 1967 borders this would leave pockets of Israelis vulnerable and effectively outside of Israel. Further, Israel would have to uproot and relocate hundred of thousands of settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank to within a newly reshaped Israel. “While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines - because these lines are indefensible,” Netanyahu told the president during their Oval Office meeting.
The purpose of the president’s AIPAC speech was to emphasis that a return to the 1967 borders was not a call for Israel to cede land to the Palestinians. In fact, Obama’s State Department speech simply represents a basic tenant of U.S. foreign policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. To balance any unease Israel and some Americans might have that President Obama is disregarding decades of entrenched American-Israeli ties in favor of bettering relations with the Arab world, the president did on several occasions reiterate U.S. support for Israel.
The president backed a plan proposed by Netanyahu in 2009 that would make Palestine a demilitarized state, expressed apprehensions about the Hamas and Fatah power-sharing agreement and offered words of discouragement to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who plans to ask the UN General Assembly to recognize Palestine as a state.
Further, the president highlighted U.S. and Israeli military cooperation including the Iron-Dome anti-rocket system. “Because we understand the challenges Israel faces, I and my administration have made the security of Israel a priority. It’s why we’ve increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels…that includes additional support…for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system,” Obama said.
The president’s renewed focus on the stalled peace process acknowledges a reality for Israel’s survival. Along with the Arab Spring, the demographics in the region are working against Israel. The administration has witnessed the Arab Spring and other structural changes in several regional states and calculated that Israel risks further isolation unless the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is revived with a chance of success.
As Obama begins his tour of several European capitals he will emphasis to his European counterparts that endorsing Palestinian statehood would be counterproductive and would discourage Israel from reengaging in the stalled peace process. France has indicated that it is inclined to vote for Palestinian statehood regardless of whether this would embarrass Israel. Moreover, the speech comes at a time of historic lows in U.S. and Israeli relations.
Obama’s address also underscores the unease that many in the Jewish community feel towards the president. Despite securing a larger proportion of the Jewish vote than his opponent in 2008 many American Jews and supporters of Israel have witnessed with alarm the president’s outreach to the Muslim world and have noted that the president has yet to visit Israel since his inauguration in 2009.
The Israel Project’s Jennifer Laslo Mizrahi commented that Obama did succeed on some level in addressing some concerns felt by supporters of Israel and those in attendance, “Most Jews vote Democrat, but most supporters of Israel are not Jews…Jobs and the economy are still top issues but Israel is as much a part of American values and traditions as are hot dogs, apple pie and freedom,” she said. Whether the president’s speech translates into jumpstarting the peace process remains to be seen.