Beyond 1967: Obama’s Remarks on Arab-Israeli Peace
When US President Barack Obama suggested last Thursday that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, those familiar with the evolution of US policy with respect to the issue did not bat an eyelid. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, that did not prevent the media from whipping up the firestorm that has raged over the past few days about an unrealistic return to 1967 that threatens Israel’s existence.
In fact, America’s position since the Camp David negotiations of 2000 has been that while the starting point of negotiations should be Israel’s boundaries before it wrested control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the 1967 war, land swaps agreed upon by Israelis and Palestinians would be necessary to account for the changing realities on the ground, including some 500,000 Israelis living beyond the 1967 lines. All Mr. Obama did was to formalize this into official US policy. These were his exact words:
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.
It is a pity that Mr. Obama’s remarks were received with such fierce controversy and vehement condemnation, such that he had to restate his position again at an AIPAC speech Sunday couched in more cozy boilerplate about Israel’s security. The criticism was not based on substance (as Mr. Obama himself stated), but was a powerful display of both the fiery passion that the Arab-Israeli conflict usually unleashes and the frosty relationship that has developed between Mr. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
To Mr. Obama’s credit, as he has done several times before, he responded to this opposition not by throwing in the towel, but by dishing up a dose of honesty and a hint of boldness. While uttering the usual reassurances on Israeli security, he staunchly defended his earlier comments and made it clear that changing demographic, technological, and political trends in the region and beyond made pursuing Arab-Israeli peace an urgent priority, positioning US foreign policy more in line with Israeli moderates rather than Mr. Netanyahu:
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 world is moving too fast. The world is moving too fast. The extraordinary challenges facing Israel will only grow. Delay will undermine Israel’s security and the peace that the Israeli people deserve.
Some may argue that despite the high priority accorded to Arab-Israeli peace under the Obama administration and Mr. Obama’s initial boldness (on the Jewish settlement freeze, for instance), he has produced little to show for it, and has in some cases backtracked. The US veto on the UN Israeli settlement resolution earlier this year in particular vexes many. But on an issue that is so politically sensitive, Mr. Obama does deserve some praise for trying and in some cases persisting, even when the realities on the ground and domestic political context have proven challenging and when he has not had the most constructive partners to work with.
It is easy to be pessimistic or cynical about Israel-Palestine, and convenient for a US president just to tow the line on America’s unshakable commitment to Israel. That Mr. Obama has chosen the tougher path of greater honesty and balance, sometimes at the expense of his own image, ought to be at least recognized, even while its outcome may be criticized.