President Obama’s declaration affirming the significance of Israel’s 1967 borders in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is animated in no small part by the need to face the challenge of a looming UN General Assembly vote recognizing Palestine as an independent state, the White House has told Jewish leaders.
In an off-the-record conference call after Obama’s May 19 speech on the Middle East, a White House official sought to put the administration’s new policy statement in context. The main issue, said the official, according to call participants, is confronting the Palestinian move for statehood at the United Nations General Assembly currently set for September, a move the official described as a “train wreck” both for the U.S. and for Israel.
He explained that without a credible peace process in place, the Palestinians will go ahead with the move and Europe will not be there to back America.
But what was viewed in Washington as a necessary step to help defend Israel from a future diplomatic calamity was interpreted in Jerusalem as a belligerent step, intended to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make concessions.
What has ensued is an all out clash marking a new low in the already troubled relations between the two leaders.
At once, the narrative of Netanyahu’s visit to Washington had changed. Instead of a victory lap in which the Israeli leader would point to the Palestinian leadership’s decision to join forces with Hamas as the main obstacle to peace, Netanyahu found himself on the defensive.
The Israeli leader was almost surely aware that requesting American support in fending off a Palestinian drive for international recognition would come with a price. But he might have miscalculated the cost.
“The Obama administration has been encouraging Netanyahu to give them something to work with. Netanyahu gave them nothing,” said Daniel Levy, co-director of the Middle East task force at the New America Foundation. “It is clear that one intention of this speech is to attempt to encourage a conversation inside Israel that takes a harder look at some of the choices Israel faces.”
In his speech, Obama made a number of comments Israel and its supporters viewed as positive. These included his skepticism about peace talks with a Palestinian Authority government that includes Hamas, which Israel and most of the West, including the United States, regards as a terrorist organization. Equally significant was Obama’s embrace of Israel’s demand that resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict include recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
But Obama also took earlier, somewhat vaguer U.S. statements about the importance of the 1967 borders as the basis for a settlement and laid out a position of notably greater clarity.
“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,” he declared. “The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”
Tensions between the two leaders were exacerbated by a series of comments made by Netanyahu and his aides in response to Obama’s speech. In an official response the prime minister’s office called the 1967 borders endorsed by Obama “indefensible.” In comments to the Israeli press unnamed officials close to Netanyahu claimed Obama “doesn’t understand the reality in the Middle East.”
Sitting next to Obama in the Oval Office at the conclusion of their May 20 meeting, Netanyahu stated clearly: “Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace. It cannot go back to the 1967 lines.” The differences were described by Obama as “something that’s going to happen between friends.”
The now unhidden tensions between Netanyahu and Obama move to the public arena in the coming days, as both leaders prepare to take their case to the American Jewish community and Congress. Initial reactions among these two key constituencies may give Netanyahu an advantage.
Jewish organizations, surprised by the President’s endorsement of the 1967 border, were cautious in their reaction to the speech.
Mainstream groups such as the Anti Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, praised the president speech and focused on his broader message to the Arab world, and his demands on the Palestinian side. B’nai B’rith International, while commending Obama for his speech, expressed concern that by stating his policy on future borders, the President was “prejudging the outcome of the peace process.”
But groups on the hawkish end of the spectrum rebuked Obama harshly. The Wiesenthal Center expressed outrage at the call to return to “the 1967 Auschwitz borders” and the Zionist Organization of America called on AIPAC to rescind its invitation to Obama to speak at their policy conference on Sunday. AIPAC chose to remain outside the public debate.
Meanwhile, several Israeli former military and security officials expressed publicly their support for a settlement based on the 1967 borders. One group, of 40 former generals, security officials and peace negotiators, offered in late April a plan for peace with the Palestinians based on Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines with land swaps that would keep settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty. J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel lobby is promoting a similar initiative also backed by a slate of former Israeli military and government officials calling for an agreement based on the 1967 borders. “Recognition of such a state is vital for Israel’s existence,” states ads published by the group in major newspaper. Congress, a bastion of support for Netanyahu, could be the Israeli leader’s best hope.
Republicans accused Obama of abandoning Israel, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor stating that “by keeping the burden and thus the spotlight on Israel, the President is only giving the Palestinian Authority more incentive to carry on its unhelpful game of sidestepping negotiations and failing to put an end to terrorism.”
But the other side of the isle showed only partial support. Howard Berman, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee said that the President’s outline “is fully consistent with Israel’s right to have defensible borders and to retain its settlement blocs, positions for which there is overwhelming support in Washington.” But Democrat Elliott Engel called the 1967blines “simply not defensible” and Independent Senator Joe Lieberman called Obama’s remarks on the future border “unhelpful.”
Netanyahu, who will address Congress on May 24, will have to carefully navigate a divided political body. With the administration already irritated (as reported Friday in the New York Times) at what is seen as Netanyahu’s attempt to drive a wedge between Congress and the administration, the Israeli leader will have to strike a tone that will not be seen as partisan or as too critical of the President.
Obama will also do his best to reach out the Jewish voters.
In another conference call organized by the White House for Jewish leaders, another White House official emphasized that Obama did not mean going back to the 1967 without recognizing that “realities have changed” on the ground. The call also focused again on the positions favorable for Israel made in Obama’s speech, including warning the Palestinians against seeking statehood through the U.N. and making clear that inclusion of Hamas in the government could deter Israel from being willing to negotiate.
The president will make his main pitch to the Jewish community when he addresses the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is the largest annual pro-Israel gathering. Jewish activists are speculating that Obama could use the opportunity to announce a visit to Israel this summer, a move that could change the dynamics and shift Jewish public opinion in favor of the President.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman