Obama vs. Netanyahu: Support Israel's security needs, not its moral claims to West Bank land.
Critics, following Netanyahu's lead, have accused Obama of endangering Israel by dictating a return to the 1967 borders. But that critique—which overlooks Obama's caveat that the borders would be revised through "mutually agreed swaps" of land—buys into Netanyahu's conflation of Israeli concerns. The dispute between Obama and Netanyahu isn't about returning to indefensible borders. It's about whether defensibility, rather than "population centers," "national importance," and "the 4,000-year-old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land," will be the basis for redrawing those borders.
Obama could make this difference explicit. He could declare that while Israel's security will be "paramount in U.S. evaluations of any prospective peace deal," as he pledged on May 20, its social or moral claims to post-1967 territory won't be. Obama already accepts that his security pledge requires a "nonmilitarized" Palestinian state, consistent with Netanyahu's demands. Netanyahu could also argue that it requires an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River for many years before a "full" withdrawal of Israeli forces.
But the security principle wouldn't support Israeli territorial claims to settlements on social or religious grounds. Coupled with the 1967 borders as a starting point, it might force Israel to trade many of these settlements for land of greater strategic importance. And with equal coldness, it would forsake Palestinians' claims of a right to return to their grandparents' long-abandoned property inside the 1967 borders. Security, yes. Historical claims, no.
It would also forsake either side's exclusive claim to Jerusalem. Netanyahu, in his remarks to Congress, insisted that "Jerusalem must never again be divided" because "only a democratic Israel has protected freedom of worship for all faiths in the city." Sorry, but that's not a security argument.
A well-designed security pact might even bypass the Hamas problem. Netanyahu refuses to negotiate with a Palestinian Authority that includes Hamas, since Hamas is sworn to Israel's destruction. The P.A. says Hamas will fall in line if a peace deal is reached. But if a deal can be worked out with security provisions that enable Israel to maintain a military presence and thwart weapons smuggling, isn't that better protection than a few magic—and insincere—words from Hamas?
If Netanyahu doesn't like this security-oriented U.S. policy, he's free to reject or ignore it. We can't make him cut a deal on our terms. But that doesn't mean we have to shut up about our differences. I'm a Jew and a hawk. I've been to Israel on an AIPAC trip. I've seen border posts, met West Bank settlers, and talked with people who lived under bombardment from Gaza. It's a great country. I'd give my life to save it. But I wouldn't give a lot of other people's lives—and leave the embers of Palestinian occupation glowing in the wind of the Arab uprisings—to sustain the fantasy of an Israel bigger than it needs to be.
(Readings I recommend: Jeffrey Goldberg at Bloomberg View says Netanyahu is exacerbating an " existential threat" to Israel by denying Palestinians the freedoms for which other Arabs are fighting. Mona Charen at National Review accuses Obama of demanding that Israel "surrender its essential security buffer of land." Paul Pillar at the National Interest says Netanyahu is falsely spinning the 1967 borders as a security issue to attract U.S. support. Shmuel Rosner at the Jerusalem Post thinks Republicans will ignore Netanyahu's request " not to turn Israel into a political wedge issue." Matt Yglesias at Think Progress says Netanyahu's U.S. love fest shows "it's not true that Israel needs to be willing to make tactical concessions to the Palestinians or even be polite to the White House in order to retain American support." Arab League boss Amr Moussa tells CNN's Fareed Zakaria that Israel had better cut a deal because the regimes " they used to coexist with … will be no longer there.")
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of Netanyahu and Obama by Alex Wong/Getty Images.