[*] “Precisely because of our friendship [with Israel], it’s important that we tell the truth;”
[*] “And it is precisely because of our commitment to Israel’s long-term security that we have worked to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
President Obama, however, has not told the whole truth in his review of the record of previous U.S. presidents. He has also been less than precise concerning his own efforts for peace and downright sloppy in his review of Israel security needs and demographic considerations.
Actually, if Israel were to return to the old frontier lines (which date from 1949, not 1967) as President Barack Obama urges, Israel’s strategic situation would be dramatically worsened in many ways.
Mortal Danger: Arab armies or terrorists would be able to cut Israel in half along its narrow waist, because there would be only eight or nine miles (15 km.) from the Arab state Obama envisions and the Mediterranean Sea. This is about the same distance as from Wall Street to Columbia University in New York City. An Arab armored column could knife across Israel’s heartland through the narrow and heavily populated coastal plain at Netanyah. Within minutes, certainly no more than hours, a surprise Arab attack could mortally wound Israel. Even a small and well-executed terror incursion could sever Israel in two very rapidly.
Air Space and Air Alert: Israel’s mountain bases in the West Bank and the Golan Heights, which Obama wants Israel to relinquish, allow Israel early warning time from threats (such as missile launches and air attack) from even as far away as Iran and Iraq. In addition, the heavily industrialized coastal plain gets a few extra minutes warning time from closer threats. Today, a jet fighter can cross from the Jordan River to Tel Aviv, Haifa or Netanya in under three minutes. That is not a lot of time, but it is better than having less than a minute.
Palestinian leaders refuse even to discuss Israel maintaining sovereign air rights over any Palestinian territory or Israel holding bases inside such territory. Indeed, the history of Israeli bases in the Gaza Strip, which were constantly attacked, is proof of how difficult it would be to maintain bases without significant Israeli territory linking them to Israel. This, too, is ruled out by PLO leaders, and no amount of “land swaps” can possibly correct the problem.
Indefensible Borders: The West Bank is essentially the world’s biggest anti-tank trap. Five mountain passes rise steeply from the low ground of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea (the lowest point on the planet) up to mountains of Judea and Samaria. Israel can easily hold off superior forces from the high ground. That is why Gen. Earle Wheeler and the US Joint Chiefs of Staff told President Lyndon Johnson in July 1967 that, for its defense, Israel needed to hold this high ground. (For a copy of JCSM-373-67, June 29, 1967, see Michael Widlanski (ed.), Can Israel Survive A Palestinian State, Jerusalem, IASPS, 1990, pp. 148-149.)
President Lyndon Johnson’s advisers Eugene Rostow and Arthur Goldberg drew up UN Security Council Resolution 242. They specifically wrote “defensible borders.” This was a reference to the research opinion solicited by President Johnson from his Joint Chiefs of Staff. Johnson’s aides also refused the concept of total withdrawal.
Israeli military men and policy makers as diverse as Labor’s Yigal Allon and Likud’s Ariel Sharon also built their own strategic visions on Israel retaining at least 30-50% of the West Bank for Israeli security needs. Such significant Israeli control is completely rejected by Arab policy makers. It cannot be fixed by “land swaps” because Israel simply does not have enough land to swap.
Obama Rules Out Major Border Changes: Since making his State Department policy speech on the “67 borders,” Obama has tried to explain that he was not demanding a return to previous frontier lines, but several elements show that he is again not telling anything close to the truth. First, Obama himself stipulates that Israel’s total land area should not be increased, but that “Palestine” and Israel should execute mutually equal land swaps. Secondly, Obama insists that “Palestine” should be “contiguous”—i.e. that Gaza and the West Bank must be connected by a land corridor that effectively cuts Israel in half. Thirdly, Obama insists that “Palestine” have borders with Jordan and Egypt, making it likely that terror and arms smuggling will be relatively easy—as is the situation in Gaza today. Most important, Mr. Obama insists on “the full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces” from the West Bank. In simple language, this rules out Israeli forward bases on the Jordan River or the Jordan Valley. That is basically a return to the pre-1967 or 1949 situation, whether Obama admits it or not.
When Obama says he is “leaving it up to both sides,” this is also not true, because when Obama makes the stipulations about full Israeli withdrawal and the limits on Israel’s total size, he is making it nearly impossible for any future Palestinian leader to take a Palestinian negotiating stance that is less Palestinian than Barack Obama’s.
Obama did this before with his position on Jewish “settlements,” and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas admits that Obama essentially ran him “up the tree.”
Defending Jerusalem: Between 1949 and 1967, Jerusalem was a shriveled town, whose re-supply and communications lines were vulnerable to attack. That is one of the reasons that Israel’s Defense Ministry was set up in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem was Israel’s capital in name, but isolated and vulnerable in practice. Jerusalem is located along the continental divide between the Israeli coastal plain and the Judean Desert. Geographically, it is an enclave surrounded by the West Bank, and maintaining Israel control of Jerusalem would be difficult without controlling significant portions of the higher ground of the Judean mountains around Jerusalem. Israeli control of Jerusalem would also be made a nightmare by ceding Arab control to significant neighborhoods or regions around Jerusalem, as Obama envisions.
Other Implications of Cutting Israel Down to Size: This has been a dream of Arab regimes and pro-Arab policy-makers even before the 1967 War. In the 1940’s and early 1950’s, Britain’s Ernest Bevin, UN mediator Folke Bernadotte and many in the US State Department wanted to take Jerusalem and parts of the Negev out of Israeli control for a variety of reasons. Today, “cutting Israel down to size” is the express dream of Amr Moussa, the staunchly anti-Israel secretary-general of the Arab League and the leading candidate to succeed Egyptian leader Husni Mubarak His goal of cutting Israel down to size would also likely encourage irredentist tendencies among Israeli Arabs and demands for autonomy of predominately Arab sections of Israel in the Galilee and Negev. In other words, Obama’s ideas would not lead to peace and stability but to more instability and foment.
Overall Effect on Israel’s Defense Doctrine: Because of the loss of strategic depth and early warning, Israel would need to move to a trip-wire defense posture that would encourage massive pre-emptive and probably unconventional attack on any perceived threats. This, too, is not a formula for stability or tranquility.
Demographic Threats to Israel: Obama claimed that , “the number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian Territories.” This is, at best, only partly true, because PLO leaders and their supporters have been “cooking” demographic data, such as UN refugee rolls and phony Palestinian Authority statistics, for a long time. Palestinian Arab birth rates have been falling for at least a decade, while Israeli birth rates, especially in the West Bank, have been rising. Research by experts at the American Enterprise Institute shows that the “demographic threat” to Israel is largely a bugaboo.
This is not the first time that Obama has been imprecise in Islamic demographic statistics. Obama largely misstated the Islamic demographic picture in the United States. He claimed there were seven million Muslims in America—in his Cairo speech in June 2009. This is probably more than three times the actual figure. Islamist extremists in Europe and the United States have often deliberately cited such bogus statistics, and it is unfortunate that the president of the US follows this trend.
Obama’s Efforts for Peace in the Middle East: Despite taking credit for any positive developments in the Middle East, the Obama record has been weak and generally counterproductive:
[*] Obama’s first foreign speech took place in Turkey, which has since become a major Islamist actor, encouraging the flotilla attack on Israel earlier this year. Turkey has also become more hostile to its own NATO partners and increased cooperation with Syria and Iran, both terror states. In addition, Turkey’s leaders have encouraged its expatriates abroad, especially in Germany, not to become part of the Western lifestyle in their host countries, but to export a militant brand of Islam.
[*] Against the advice of several of America’s allies (in Israel and Europe), Obama took an unnecessarily hostile stance against the authoritarian (but not totalitarian) regime of Husni Mubarak, who had been one of America’s most reliable allies in the region. This action undermined stability in the heart of the Mediteranean basin, which Obama belatedly and tacitly admitted when he said: “there will be times when our short term interests do not align perfectly with our long term vision of the region.”
[*] Against the express wishes of Congress, Obama sent an ambassador to Syria, whose regime tried to establish a nuclear weapons reactor in 2008 (until it was destroyed by Israel) and whose regime has killed hundreds of peaceful protestors.
[*] Obama’s huge overture to the Islamic world in his dramatic 2009 Cairo speech was not greeted by moderation by most of the audiences he addressed, including the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members he specifically invited to hear the speech. Leaders of the Brotherhood have spearheaded the worst elements of the foment in Egypt, calling for breaking trade and diplomatic links with Israel, and even resuming full-scale war and support for anti-Western terror.
[*] Obama’s repeated overtures and offers of “engaging Iran” have produced diametrically opposite results from what was desired: Iran’s ayatollahs stole the 2009 Iranian election for the sake of the messianic-minded Mahmoud Ahmadinajad; bloodily repressed all peaceful protests; and allowed Iran to advance its nuclear weapons options, while blocking Israel’s calls for joint military action.
[*] Contrary to Obama’s protestations that his policy is merely an extension of previous US administrations, the Obama Administration has been the most hostile to Israel retaining any territory captured from attacking Arab armies in 1967.
[*] President Lyndon Johnson and his top advisers favored Israel retaining significant territory for defensive needs. That was the basis for the Johnson-Rostow-Goldberg interpretation of UN Resolution 242, which, contrary to statements by Obama officials, did not foresee anything approaching the 1949 frontier lines.
[*] President Gerald Ford signed several secret and public memoranda of understandings (1974 and 1975) with Israel which set very tough terms for any dealings with the PLO—which the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Arafat have essentially violated by their efforts to attack and de-legitimize Israel. Ford also sent a letter to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin promising to “give great weight” to Israel’s demand to have continued Israeli control of the Golan Heights, the high ground protecting northern Israel.
[*] President Ronald Reagan saw a Palestinian Arab state as a danger, and so, originally, did President George W. Bush, who originally opposed Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, until he was convinced otherwise, on both points, by advisers of Ariel Sharon. [Today, most Israelis believe Sharon’s ideas were a huge mistake.] Both Regan and Bush II made it clear that they viewed Israel as an important strategic ally of the US and an important moral ally of the US. Bush cut off ties with Arafat when it was shown that he had continued directing terror against Israel. Bush II’s “Roadmap for Peace” demanded that any Israeli territorial concessions had to be preceded by hard evidence of Palestinian cessation of terror, violence and incitement to hatred. Obama has demanded Israeli concessions from the outset, and his position forced a hardening of the Palestinian position, leading to a freezing of all direct Israeli-Palestinian talks for two year.
[*] No previous US president saw Israeli settlements as illegal, except for Jimmy Carter. But Obama and his vice president (Joe Biden) and secretary of state have even suggested that Israeli neighborhoods in Jerusalem are an obstacle to peace.
[*] From President Harry Truman to President George W. Bush, US leaders have believed that there is a moral and historical bond between the US and the Jewish people as a whole, and the people of Israel in particular. For Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, the horrors of the Holocaust were a unique stain on humanity and an indelible memory. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has placed the Holocaust in the same category as the suffering of the Palestinian Arabs who attacked Israel in 1948 and who have not stopped since. He regularly places “Palestine”—a state which does not exist—on the same moral and strategic plain with Israel, America’s only firm ally in the Middle East. President Obama makes little or no reference to the continued hate education and incitement in the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, and he repeatedly acts as if PA forces are as reliable as Israeli soldiers.
This is part of a pattern with Mr. Obama, who is willing to sacrifice the truth to fit a political scenario, and then to act offended when he’s caught bending the facts. He must be forced to confront to confront the truth.
Dr. Michael Widlanski edited Can Israel Survive a Palestinian State? and teaches Arab politics and communication at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His new book on Arab-Islamic terror will be published by Threshold Editions in 2012. Dr. Widlanski is a former reporter, correspondent and editor, respectively, at The New York Times, The Cox Newspapers-Atlanta Constitution, and The Jerusalem Post, serving as a special advisor to Israeli delegations to peace talks in 1991-1992 and as Strategic Affairs Advisor to the Ministry of Public Security, editing secret PLO Archives captured in Jerusalem.