The Steve Simon call

The Washington Post’s left and right columnists are having a grand old time mixing it up over a call that Steve Simon, the White House go-to guy on Israel, had last Friday with the Jewish leadership.

I heard the call. To put it gently, Greg Sargent, the Plum Line, or "left" columnist, has it right. And I don’t know where Jennifer Rubin, the "Right Turn" columnist, is getting her info.

The short story I put out Friday did not quote Simon at length, but I did not expect his remarks would be misreported.

The thrust of Simon’s call was that the White House was now awaiting Israel’s response on President Obama’s May 19 initiative — the one that has been boiled down to "1967 borders with land swaps." The Palestinians had given a reply that the administration was "not comfortable" with but had been "forthcoming." The implied rebuke: The Netanyahu government had not been at all forthcoming.

Here’s Rubin in her initial post:

What happened to the statements in President Obama’s speech to AIPAC that Israel could not be expected to sit down with those who want to destroy it? After all Hamas has not yet agreed to the Quartet principles (recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and abide by past agreements), nor has [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas separated himself from the unity government.

I did not quote Simon directly, but I did paraphrase him as noting that the parameters included "no negotiations with a partner that includes Hamas unless it renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel," and that he said the United States would cut off the PA in that case.

So for Rubin’s sake, I will now quote Simon directly:

We don’t expect Israel to negotiate with a Hamas government. If they [the Palestinian Authority] go to a power-sharing arrangement where Hamas’ position has not shifted, then we’re obligated to cut off our support.

It couldn’t be clearer: Not only would Israel not be expected to negotiate with a government that included Hamas, but the United States would cut off such a government.

What’s more, I’m not sure how Rubin in the same post gets to Israel giving up the Western Wall — a meme that has been picked up by others on the right, and yesterday in a statement by the Zionist Organization of America.

Here’s Rubin:

To be clear, Israel is being pressured to give up prior understandings that the Western Wall and the Jerusalem suburbs, for example, would never be part of a Palestinian state.

How does this square with Obama’s proposal that Jerusalem be deferred until after the borders are decided? Here’s what Obama says in his speech:

These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.

I’ve heard two opposing versions of what I’ll call "fret spin" about the above locution. Those in the mainstream pro-Israel community fret that leaving Jerusalem and refugees until later means Obama is retreating from Bush administration understandings that the new Jewish suburbs in the city are sacrosanct, and that the refugee issue is closed. Those sympathetic to Palestinians fret that it means pulling leverage away from the Palestinians — in other words, that they get to talk about these issues only after they have conceded an end to the conflict and territorial blocs in the West Bank.

It might mean both these scenarios, it might mean neither — this gets a little too speculative for me. But one clear meaning of "two wrenching and emotional issues will remain" is that Jerusalem and the Western Wall (!!) are not included in the "1967 lines with land swaps" phase.

Sargent followed up with this post in which he quoted two figures, Alan Solow and Stu Eizenstat, who actually were on the call as saying there was no pressure on Israel to negotiate with a PA government that includes Hamas. There was no such pressure, but maybe here, if one is especially generous, one can find the shadow of a basis for some of the right-wing anxiety about the call and its aftermath: There was no "additional" such pressure, as Eizenstat put it, but Simon’s call could forgivably be described as "pressure" on Israel, through its American friends, to come towards Obama’s initiative.

Rubin subsequently said that her concern was not the phone call but her inability to elicit on-the-record commitments from the White House or the State Department that Israel would not be expected to negotiate with a government that includes Hamas. Fair enough — neither body, under Democratic or Republican presidencies, is big on making blunt on-the-record commitments, but she is right to ask for them. She now has Simon’s commitment, made in an off-the-record conversation, courtesy of me. (In fact, whichever interlocutor is feeding her material from the call always had it.) But on the record does indeed matter more.

The problem with her defense here, though, is that she started this jag because of the Washington Times report on the phone call. She even says in her initial post that the "trouble for the administration" began with that story. How then, in this post, does the call become "meaningless"?

One final thing: In this post she says that the White House came to me to show that the "1967 lines with land swap" proposal had a Nixon administration precedent. It did not; as I noted in the post, it was a Jewish Democrat.

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