Obama and Israel's 1967 borders: A reply to Charles Krauthammer.

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May 27 2011 7:45 AM

Wake Up and Smell the Keffiyeh

Is President Obama endangering Israel—or trying to save it?

President Obama and former President Bush. Click image to expand.

Is President Obama endangering Israel?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Charles Krauthammer thinks so. In today's Washington Post, Krauthammer argues that Obama is undercutting the Jewish state by abandoning President Bush's promises to support Israel in peace talks. Krauthammer is a friend and a terrific writer. But this time, he's got it wrong.

Let's take his arguments point by point.

1. "Every Arab-Israeli negotiation contains a fundamental asymmetry: Israel gives up land, which is tangible; the Arabs make promises, which are ephemeral."

On June 5, 1967, the Arabs had Gaza, the Sinai, and the West Bank. They lost all that territory in six days. Land, like promises, can be taken away. Not easily, I'll grant you. But if promises are broken, a well-armed Israel can seize land from which the attacks were launched.

Here's the more important point: Security conditions, such as Israeli troops along the Jordan River, are tangible. Israel can bargain for such conditions as part of the deal. I'd support such conditions, and so would Obama. To quote his May 19 speech:

Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.

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2. When "Israel undertook, for example, the Gaza withdrawal … President George W. Bush gave a written commitment that America supported Israel absorbing major settlement blocs in any peace agreement, opposed any return to the 1967 lines and stood firm against the so-called Palestinian right of return to Israel."

Krauthammer provides a link to Bush's 2004 letter. Here's the key passage:

In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949 … It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.

That's not a commitment to support Israel on the settlement blocs. It's a prediction that the 1949-1967 border will be adjusted to include these blocs, through mutually agreed swaps—exactly what Obama said on May 19. Furthermore, as Fareed Zakaria points out, Bush reaffirmed in 2008 that "any peace agreement … will require mutually agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949 to reflect current realities and to ensure that the Palestinian state is viable and contiguous."

3. "President Obama definitively trashed [Bush's assurances]. He declared that the Arab-Israeli conflict should indeed be resolved along 'the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.' Nothing new here, said Obama three days later. 'By definition, it means that the parties themselves—Israelis and Palestinians—will negotiate a border that is different' from 1967.
It means nothing of the sort. 'Mutually' means both parties have to agree. And if one side doesn't? Then, by definition, you're back to the 1967 lines."

Not quite. If one side doesn't agree, then you have no deal. Israel can hold out for a land swap to retain settlement blocs it deems vital. And it can cite Obama's May 22 speech, in which he said his 1967-with-swaps formulation "allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years … including the new demographic realities on the ground"—which, per the 2004 Bush letter, means the settlement blocs.

4. "Obama has undermined Israel's negotiating position. He is demanding that Israel go into peace talks having already forfeited its claim to the territory won in the '67 war—its only bargaining chip."

Everybody knows Israel is going to give up the territory it won in the '67 war. The concept of the talks all along has been land for peace. The question is whether Israel is going to get peace as promised. Why not focus on mechanisms to secure that promise, instead of pretending that the rough outline of the land transfer is in doubt?

As for bargaining chips, Israel's leverage isn't that it has a claim to the land. Its leverage is that it holds the land—and has the power to defend or retake it.

5. "That '67 line runs right through Jerusalem. Thus the starting point of negotiations would be that the Western Wall and even Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter are Palestinian—alien territory for which Israel must now bargain."

That's a legitimate concern. But in his speech, Obama distinguished "the future of Jerusalem" as an issue that "will remain" after the territorial outline is settled. Presumably, this means that when he speaks of the 1967 line as a basis for determining the border, he isn't applying it to Jerusalem. He needs to clarify this question.

6. "Flooding Israel with millions of Arabs would destroy the world's only Jewish state … That's why it has been the policy of the United States to adamantly oppose this 'right.' Yet in his State Department speech, Obama refused to simply restate this position … Instead, he told Israel it must negotiate the right of return with the Palestinians after having given every inch of territory. Bargaining with what, pray tell?"

A very apt criticism. You can't ask Israel to hand over all the land without getting all the peace. That means all Palestinian claims must be settled. Either the right of return is resolved in a comprehensive deal, or Israel gets to hold back some of the land until that issue is resolved. I can't imagine the Palestinians tolerating the latter scenario.

My view is that the land transfer must, by definition, resolve all territorial claims. If you want Palestinians to have the right to claim a piece of land, you'll have to negotiate for that piece of land as part of the Palestinian state. Beyond the borders of the Palestinian state, there's no right of return. But my view doesn't matter. Obama's does, and he needs to spell it out.

7. "The only remaining question is whether this perverse and ultimately self-defeating policy is born of genuine antipathy toward Israel or of the arrogance of a blundering amateur who refuses to see that he is undermining not just peace but the very possibility of negotiations."

Antipathy toward Israel? Come on.

Here's another possibility: Obama believes exactly what he said on May 19. He's pained by the Palestinians' "humiliation of occupation." He sees that "a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River," and he worries that without a peace agreement, "Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself." He recognizes that "the international community is tired of an endless [peace] process that never produces an outcome." He understands that the Arab Spring "will lead to populism in which millions of people—not just one or two leaders—must believe peace is possible. " He regrets that the unresolved Palestinian conflict "impedes partnerships" in the broader Middle East. And he fears that without a "credible peace process," the "march to isolate Israel internationally … will continue to gain momentum."

So Obama is pushing Israel to cut a deal. He's doing this for humanitarian reasons and for U.S. interests. But he's also doing it to send our best friend a message: Wake up and smell the keffiyeh. He believes, correctly, that if Israel doesn't cut a deal soon, it will find itself surrounded not by kings and dictators susceptible to individual negotiations, but by 300 million Arabs who want a vigorously anti-Zionist foreign policy and have the votes to get it. Then we'll see what antipathy toward Israel really looks like.

(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.")

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