May 26, 2011
Professor Alon Ben-Meir
The supposed controversy over President Obama's speech on the Middle East, manufactured by Prime Minster Netanyahu and enabled by the media, is disgraceful and insincere. President Obama said nothing new about borders, just the facts: no border will ever be acceptable to the Palestinians that does not carve out a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, the two territories based on the "1967 lines," and no border will ever be acceptable to Israel that does not include the three major settlement blocs. Negotiating the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps meets both demands, which is why it has been the foundation of border negotiations in every peacemaking effort including UN Resolutions 242 and 338, to which Israel is signatory. However, by misrepresenting the President's remarks, Netanyahu irresponsibly chose to pick a fight with the one man who can safeguard Israel from near total international isolation, while ignoring the very significant steps the president took in Israel's favor.
Days before President Obama's speech, Netanyahu spoke to the Knesset and identified Israel's core demands: maintaining the settlement blocs, a united Jerusalem, opposing Palestinian refugees' return to Israel, and receiving recognition as a Jewish state. President Obama has now backed them all-but Netanyahu is choosing not to listen. Netanyahu's reaction to Obama's speech, stating that the 1967 lines are "indefensible" simply ignored Obama's call for mutually agreed land swaps, which inherently means an adjusted 1967 border, as President Obama's explained in his remarks to AIPAC. The notion of "indefensible" borders also ignores pure common sense. The width between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is a mere 44 miles-if an adjusted 1967 border is "indefensible," what is defensible? How many handfuls of acres or kilometers more are needed to maintain the balance of Israel's national security? The inconvenient truth is that expanding territory by a few more acres is not what will maintain Israel's national security. Israel's security can only be guaranteed by four elements: 1) a lasting peace agreement, 2) credible deterrence, 3) enforceable international guarantees and finally 4) a strong U.S.-Israel relationship that provides Israel with a security umbrella. This will safeguard Israel from international opprobrium by supporting its right to self-defense and working alongside it to address regional threats such as that from Iran.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu, along with much of the media, and the president's critics and challengers chose to ignore the significant steps Obama took to place the onus on the Palestinians. In fact, Obama's iteration of the 1967 border discussion was geared directly for this purpose. First, it provides the Palestinians - and the Europeans - with a new consideration ahead of the planned United Nations General Assembly vote in September. That President Obama gave an exclusive interview after the speech to the BBC - addressing a European audience - and soon after embarked on a five-day trip to Europe, only underscores his commitment to ensuring that "efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure," and that "actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state." Second, the focus on borders was intended to remove the issue of a settlement freeze from continuing to serve as the primary obstacle to negotiations. It appears he has succeeded, with Palestinians now requesting Netanyahu's response to Obama's formulation on borders as a prerequisite to renewed negotiations, rather than a full freeze. Third, the president addressed Palestinian national aspirations in the context of the Arab Spring to maintain credibility for the United States in the region. But more importantly, he did so without wavering from the United States' commitment to Israel's security "as a Jewish state." In fact, his reiteration of "Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people," were both endorsements of a two-state solution and a rejection of the Palestinian right of return to Israel. Fourth, not only did President Obama state that the Palestinians "walked away from talks," but with regard to the recent Fatah-Hamas unity government, he challenged the Palestinians to produce a "credible answer" to the question, "How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?"
It is one thing to establish maximalist positions knowing that negotiations will ultimately moderate these stances to achieve one's actual goals. It is entirely another matter to articulate a position that is totally and completely unacceptable to the other side, as Netanyahu has done when he addressed a joint session of Congress, and that does not allow any opportunity for negotiation. After all, both parties know very well what the contours of any peace agreement will look like.
On borders, as Obama stated, a negotiated border will be based on the 1967 border with land swaps to include the major settlement blocs. On Jerusalem, the city must remain "united" but the Palestinians must also have some presence in the Arab neighborhoods to form a capital in East Jerusalem for a Palestinian state. On security, Israel must have ironclad security guarantees with an international peacekeeping force (perhaps with some Israeli and Palestinian participation) to be stationed along the Jordan River. The force should be assembled from specific countries that have a vested interest in maintaining peace, including Arab states such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, EU nations like Britain, France and Germany, all under the command of the United States. Finally, both sides must face these hard truths: that Israel's recognition as a Jewish state requires a Jewish majority that can only be sustained through a two-state solution, and, in turn, a solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees must be a return to Palestine, not to Israel. No moderate Israeli or Palestinian could accept anything less. None of this is new, none of it should be controversial, and none of it can be achieved without the active participation, encouragement and facilitation of the United States-whether the international community, the Palestinians, or Israel likes it or not.
Still, if this solution is ever to be achieved, Israel and the Palestinians must address those who would rather perpetuate the conflict than end it. For Israel, this means not enabling settlers and other right-wing radicals to hijack the Zionist cause in ways that are weakening the United States-Israel alliance and placing Israel's future in jeopardy. It also means that instead of shielding his eyes from the truth, and pointing to obstacles to justify his inaction, Netanyahu must be pro-active in presenting real leadership and a realistic, practical path that can bring Israel toward greater peace and security, and away from its growing isolation. For the Palestinians it is a clear recognition that violence will only lead to destruction. Hamas must be disabused of the notion that Israel can be destroyed. The use of such rhetoric, and violence, will not just place Hamas at risk, it will completely annihilate it. Israel will not hesitate to respond to such threats by decapitating its leadership and inflicting a severe blow on its infrastructure, even at the expense of international condemnation. But Israel should also welcome any sign of moderation on the part of Hamas, especially if the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah holds.
Top Egyptian officials have privately conveyed this message to Hamas leaders-if they ignore the advice, they will do so at their own peril, and at the demise of the Palestinian national cause as well as the significant progress that has been made to achieve the goal of Palestinian independence. As one Palestinian recently told me, he is concerned about the unknown changes that will emanate from the recent reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas: "Right now the Palestinians in the West Bank feel as though we are living in Switzerland-except we don't sleep," he said. "Now, we have so much to lose." The same is true of Israelis-the situation can change overnight, and time is running out. In his remarks on Sunday to AIPAC, President Obama was blunt: "If there is a controversy, then it's not based in substance. What I did on Thursday (in the speech on the Middle East) 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 extraordinary challenges facing Israel will only grow. Delay will undermine Israel's security and the peace that the Israeli people deserve."
Reflecting on these remarks, Israelis must ask themselves: Are we better off today than we were more than two years ago when the Netanyahu government came to power? The question, of course, is rhetorical-but the answer is a clear, unequivocal "no." As such, Israeli leaders should be asking themselves a subsequent question: What are we prepared to do about it? If Netanyahu's speech to a joint session of Congress is his answer, the Israelis should expect further isolation while jeopardizing rather than enhancing their national security.
*A version of this article appears in the Jerusalem Post, May 26, 2011 and is available online:http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Opinion/Article.aspx?id=222338