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. Follow him on Twitter.

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:

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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.

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.