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In a speech to the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) on Sunday morning, President Obama tried to offer some clarification to his remarks on Thursday at the State Department where he stated that “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.”
Stung by an outburst of condemnation and criticism for those remarks – and a stern lecture from Prime Minister Netanyahu after their White House meeting – the president attempted to quell the controversy by reiterating America’s strong support for the state of Israel, and placing his comments on creating a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders in the context of “mutually agreed swaps” of land that would alter those boundaries substantially.
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. 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 forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.
The president’s excuse for this significant change in US policy was the prospect of a vote at the United Nations this fall that would recognize Palestinian statehood – a turn of events that carries great risk for both Israel and America.
But he insisted that the border issue be the starting point for negotiations – a ploy to restart direct talks with the Palestinians – and that other issues like the “right of return” for Palestinians and the status of Jerusalem be worked out later. In effect, President Obama has sided 100% with the Palestinians in their claims just as the new unity government of Hamas and Fatah takes shape. And while Obama stated that “Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist,” he did not make Palestinian adherence to the Quartet Principles a prerequisite for negotiations. (The Quartet principles include recognizing Israel’s right to exist, renouncing violence, and agreeing to abide by previous negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.)
The Palestinians, of course, were overjoyed that Obama had sided with their long-held contention that a Palestinian state should be formed out of Israel’s 1967 borders. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, “If Netanyahu agrees, we shall turn over a new leaf…Once Netanyahu says that the negotiations will lead to a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, then everything will be set.”
Note that Mr. Erekat said nothing about “mutually agreed swaps” of land. The reason is simple. As Dore Gold pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Abbas does not believe in such swaps. “Mr. Abbas has said many times that any land swaps would be minuscule,” wrote Gold. It doesn’t sound promising when one side in negotiations rejects the other’s right to exist and refuses to talk about defensible borders.
As Netanyahu told President Obama at the White House on Friday, “[W]hile Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines because these lines are indefensible.” The Israeli prime minister also reminded the president that conditions on the ground in Israel had been altered over the past 44 years, with demographic changes putting much of the Israeli population outside the 1967 borders.
White House aides were said to be “infuriated” with Netanyahu’s “lecturing tone” after that Oval Office meeting with the president. But the Israelis had their own complaints about the president’s speech on Thursday beyond the border issue. The president was silent about the “right of return” that the Palestinians say is necessary for any peace agreement. Previous presidents have rejected this claim as unworkable. Also, Netanyahu rightly pointed out that the attack on Israel in 1948 resulted in two refugee problems; a Palestinian exodus that the Arab world did nothing about and the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands that Israel solved by absorbing the newcomers. The Israeli prime minister stated flatly that a return of Palestinian refugees to Israel would destroy the Jewish state. “”[T]hat’s not going to happen. Everybody knows it’s not going to happen. And I think it’s time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly, it’s not going to happen,” he said.
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