Obama, An Undiplomatic Arbiter for Israel and Palestine
From the outset of his presidency, Barack Obama was thought to be much more sympathetic with the prospect of a Palestinian state than his predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush, as a matter of fact, was no less committed to the two-state solution than Obama, but his intentions were derailed by the tragic events of 9/11.
Where Bush hesitated at the prospect of alienating Israeli leadership by insisting too hard on an end to new Israeli settlements on the West Bank, the Obama administration has been more adamant. Yet, none of Obama’s previous diplomatic efforts signaled the awkward, entirely undiplomatic statement on Israel and Palestine made by the president on May 19.
Obama’s insistence on the 1967 border between Israel and Palestine was not only uninformed in terms of previous negotiations but also blithely dismissive of the major changes in the political alignments in the Arab world and their consequences for future Israeli security. Israel has spent too little time pursuing serious negotiations, perhaps thinking they could keep the status quo, but that strategy only assured that the recent changes in the Arab world would pose a more serious threat than might have been.
Particularly unsettling to Israel has been the recent unity agreement between the Hamas and Fatah parties on the West Bank and in Gaza. The Hamas prime minister of Gaza Ismail Haniyeh then called upon the Palestinian Liberation Organization (Fatah) to withdraw its recognition of Israel. Without a clear recognition of Israel’s right to exist there can be no peace between the two sides and, of course, no progress in pursuing a two-state solution. Without a two-state solution, the deterioration of the quality of life on the West Bank, a in Gaza, under the occupation has sent thousands of middle class families, including much of the Christian community, have gone to live elsewhere.
Perhaps even more immediately threatening is Egypt’s opening of the Rafah crossing on the southern border of Gaza this Saturday. There’s no predicting what kind of munitions will be brought across that border to supply terrorism against Israel. The Katyusha-type rockets now hitting southern Israel could be replaced by something far more deadly.
When Prime Minister Netanyahu attended an Oval Office meeting on May 20, he immediately rejected Obama’s insistence on the 1967 borders. Obama then retreated in a speech the following day to AIPAC. The qualifications added by Obama to the border issue left many shaking their heads as to why they were not included in the first place. Previously negotiations brokered by the U.S. between Israel and Palestine always included broad exceptions to the ’67 borders.
To complicate matters more, Obama seems oblivious to the looming question of the Palestinian refugee “right of return.” Those who have followed the negotiations over the years have long known that the Palestinians would have to settle for a very limited number of returning refugees in exchange for an acceptable border with Israel. None of Obama’s public statements, including those from his trip to the UK, suggest any awareness of this sticking point.
Perhaps the president’s awkwardness can be explained by the approaching September vote in the United Nations on Palestinian statehood. Although a UN resolution would effectively create an independent state — that remains to be worked out with Israel — it would provide the Palestinians significant international leverage.
The United States has stood by Israel, thus far, at the United Nations, e.g., vetoing a resolution in February condemning the building of more Israeli settlements on the West Bank. But, it’s very likely that President Obama does not want to become further isolated in the international community as a supporter of Israel.
Pushing Israel to the wall with insistence on borders that compromise its security — along with no mention of the refugee question — cannot bring about a resolution to the conflict before September, or any time. The president needs to begin by acknowledging that the political turmoil in the Arab world has made Israel much more vulnerable to attack, restate the U.S.’s commitment to protecting its valuable ally, and insist that the Palestine government, whether unified or not, unambiguously affirm Israel’s right to exist and its status as a Jewish state.