In my last post, I wrote that there were “few surprises” in President Obama’s speech on the Middle East at the State Department on Thursday. Obama expressed qualified support for democracy where that support wouldn’t cost the U.S. too much, while not mentioning undemocratic Saudi Arabia even once in the speech. And as I suspected, it seems that people in the Middle East will only believe that U.S. policy is different when they see it.
But there was one major démarche in the speech: Obama’s call for a peace between Israel and the Palestinians “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” In other words, Obama called for borders between Israel and a Palestinian state based on the borders established by the 1949 Armistice agreements that existed before the Six Day War in 1967. That this is the U.S.’ real position is not exactly news. As Matt Duss says, “Treating the 1967 lines as a basis for negotiations in this way represents the overwhelming consensus of the international community, enshrined in multiple U.N. resolutions.” In fact, Secretary of State Clinton called for a Palestinian state based on 1967 lines in 2009. Jeffrey Goldberg wonders if there is “any non-delusional Israeli who doesn’t think that the 1967 border won’t serve as the rough outline of the new Palestinian state?”
But in diplomacy it matters when countries say things out loud. And while presidents have hinted that some return to the 1967 lines would be necessary, they haven’t really said it out loud before. In fact, the U.S. has vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for agreements based on the 1967 lines. As Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler shows, outside of one minor statement by George W. Bush at news conference, presidents have carefully avoided any explicit call for any kind of return to the 1967 lines.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netyanhu reacted by calling the Obama's proposal “indefensible.” Israel has long maintained that the 1967 borders were impossible to defend militarily, and anyway were never meant to represent a permanent territorial boundary. Republicans in Congress have meanwhile accused Obama of betraying our staunchest ally. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) released a statement saying that “Rather than standing by consistent unprovoked aggression by longtime supporters of terrorism, President Obama is rewarding those who threaten Israel’s very right to exist.” And Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) released a statement accusing Obama of “a shocking display of betrayal towards our ally.” Bachmann also put out 150,000 robocalls in Iowa and South Carolina attacking Obama’s speech in what is likely a test run of her campaign operations in advance of presidential run.
The truth is that by formally calling for a return to even a modified version of the 1967 lines Obama risks alienating the politically powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and losing potential swing voters. For Obama to do so just as he is gearing up for his reelection campaign presumably means that he believes that the recent changes in the Arab world could make real progress in peace talks possible. I hope he's right—because resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestinians is one thing that could really make a lasting difference in our relations with the Middle East.
Photo credit: Justin McIntosh