In the wake of his recent Middle-East Policy speech on Friday, which received
excessive heavy criticism, Obama met with Netanyahu. The ensuing press conference was embarrassingly tense, with Bibi openly disagreeing on several points – such as the withdrawal of Israeli military from the Jordan valley (at 9:00) and the President’s failure to mention the issue of Palestinian refugees (at 11:00). Despite both leaders reaffirming their “friendship, the body language shows the icy relationship between the hawkish PM and the bleeding-heart President. Obama did not look at all happy while Bibi was talking.
Last night, Obama spoke at the annual policy conference of powerful lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to clarify his position. The full video is embedded below and I have summarised the take-home points.
The most important point is that he constantly reaffirmed his support for the US-Israel relationship, including US support for the Israeli military, and that he constantly recognised Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
On Friday, I was joined at the White House by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and we reaffirmed that fundamental truth that has guided our presidents and prime ministers for more than 60 years—that, even while we may at times disagree, as friends sometimes will, the bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable, and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad.
And he also made it clear that he would veto a UN vote on Palestinian statehood without a peace agreement.
…These are the facts. I firmly believe, and repeated on Thursday, that peace cannot be imposed on the parties to the conflict. No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state. And the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the UN or in any international forum. Because Israel’s legitimacy is not a matter for debate.
The first vaguely controversial point was where he spoke about the “harsh realities” that Israel has to face:
…There are the facts we all must confront. First, the number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian territories. This will make it harder and harder — without a peace deal — to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state.
Second, technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself in the absence of a genuine peace.
And third, a new generation of Arabs is reshaping the region. A just and lasting peace can no longer be forged with one or two Arab leaders. Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained.
I agree with points one and two – they are extremely important. Really, the clock is ticking for Israel. If a solution is not found soon, we will be looking at a very different Middle East and Israel’s existence as a democratic, Jewish state will become harder and harder to maintain. On the other hand, the validity of the third point has yet to be seen.
He later went on to confirm that Israel has to make “hard choices”, although acknowledged that Israel is not alone in this:
…Ultimately, however, it is the right and responsibility of the Israeli government to make the hard choices that are necessary to protect a Jewish and democratic state for which so many generations have sacrificed. And as a friend of Israel, I am committed to doing our part to see that this goal is realized, while calling not just on Israel, but on the Palestinians, the Arab States, and the international community to join us in that effort. Because the burden of making hard choices must not be Israel’s alone.
To his credit, Obama did not shy-away from his critics and addressed the issue over the 1967 borders that has been plaguing him since Friday. The response has been completely overblown, as observed by the Jerusalem Post‘s David Halperin and Peter Joseph:
To be sure, semantics are critical in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. President Obama’s articulation of the date “1967” in his speech was significant. But the dishonest – and dangerous – politicization and demagoguery on display over the last 24 hours in response to this speech, and the dishonest suggestions that Obama has placed Israel’s security in jeopardy by imposing on Israel a full return to the ‘67 border, has been shameful.
Obama’s response was completely fair – as I observed on Saturday, this is not a new policy at all and really should have come as no surprise to most. It definitely did not deserve the hyperbole that it created.
…Now, it was my reference to the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps that received the lion’s share of the attention. And since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” means.
By definition, it means that the parties themselves — Israelis and Palestinians — will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. It is a well known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides. The ultimate goal is two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.
That last point in bold is extremely important. As noted by Akiva Eldar in Haaretz, the crux of Obama’s speech was self-determination for both sides. He also reaffirmed that he had no regard for Hamas and understood that as long as they defy the Quartet’s three conditions – that they recognise Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence and agree to abide by past agreements – Israel cannot negotiate with them.
The time has come to pay for American opposition to the Goldstone commission report on the Israeli incursion in Gaza and the veto of the UN Security Council’s condemnation of construction in West Bank settlements. Obama denied Netanyahu the opportunity to exercise a veto on the terms for negotiations with the Palestinians. The U.S. president said that negotiations could not be conducted with Hamas as long as the organization does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, refuses to accept existing international obligations and engages in terrorism. The Palestinian party to the negotiations was and remains the Palestine Liberation Organization and not Hamas.
Obama also rejected Netanyahu’s demand that negotiations begin based on the principle of Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The president was careful to speak about both parties’ right to self-determination. Period.
That said, there was a fundamental issue with the speech: Obama at no point recognised the Palestinian refugee issue. As Bibi mentioned in the press conference above, it is not possible for these refugees to have the “right of return” that they demand. A just solution must be found, but this will rely on a comprehensive peace agreement. By taking no stance on the issue and not even mentioning it, yet pressuring Israel to make severe concessions, Obama is effectively undermining himself and damaging his relationship with the Israelis. As the Jerusalem Post editorial said:
Obama’s repeated omission of the refugee issue raises serious questions. The US president did state several times his support for Israel as the “homeland for the Jewish people.” Obviously, maintaining such a homeland precludes recognition of a “right of return” for Palestinians that endangers Jewish sovereignty. Still, if Obama was already taking the opportunity to clarify and reformulate some of the more problematic aspects of his speech from last week, why didn’t he clarify this vital point? The Palestinians’ stubborn insistence on demanding the “right of return” for millions of “refugees” within Israel’s borders marks a refusal to accept Israel as the Jewish state. This outrageous demand, coupled with the fact that Hamas, an anti-Semitic terrorist organization bent on the destruction of Israel, is an equal partner in the Palestinian people’s official political leadership, are the real obstacles to peace. If Obama is truly sincere in his desire to facilitate peace, he must acknowledge this and do everything he can to remedy the situation.
Obama implicitly acknowledged it by affirming Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, but he cannot ignore the issue and expect any resolution to be reached.