Most of the reportage and commentary on all the Obama-Netanyahu back-and-forth has focused on the two leaders’ disagreement over borders, specifically the president’s call for the 1967 lines — with agreed-upon land swaps — to serve as the basis for a future Palestinian state’s border. (Would the 1967 lines be a defensible border for Israel? Was this a new position for an American president? Etc.)
A number of commentators, however, are pointing to what they see as another significant issue in Obama’s speech: the order in which he suggests that the issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians should be addressed.
President Obama called on the parties to tackle borders and security first, and only after reaching agreement on these two issues taking on what he called the “emotional issues” of Jerusalem and refugees. But some Israeli and pro-Israel commentators are warning that this approach would be profoundly dangerous for Israel.
Alan Dershowitz was fast out of the gate on this issue:
As all reasonable people know, the right of return is a non-starter. It is used as a "card" by the Palestinian leadership who fully understand that they will have to give it up if they want real peace. The Israelis also know that they will have to end their occupation of most of the West Bank (as they ended their occupation of Gaza) if they want real peace. Obama’s mistake was to insist that Israel give up its card without demanding that the Palestinians give up theirs.
Haaretz’s Ari Shavit (who mostly felt the president’s speech was good for Israel) said the president made an “egregious error” on the order issue:
Instead of presenting the 1967 borders as the end of the process, Obama made them its start. Instead of tying them to the end of demands and the end of the conflict, they were tied to greater demands and continued conflict.
Without intending any harm, Obama presented Israel with a suicidal proposition: an interim agreement based on the 1967 borders. It’s a proposal that runs along the same lines as the Hamas offer of a hudna – a long-term cease-fire. It’s a proposal that will result in certain conflict in Jerusalem and in the inundation of Israel with refugees. It’s a proposition that spells an end to peace, an end to stability and an end to the State of Israel.
Similarly, Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, Israel’s hawkish vice premier (who believes there’s no chance of negotiating an agreement with Mahmoud Abbas in any case), warned: "Obama in effect demanded of us to give up the territorial card without the substantive questions that are important to us – such as recognition of the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people – are solved.” And J. Schachter in The Jersalem Post suggested that “the president has moved away from ‘land for peace’ to ‘land now, peace maybe later.’”
Now, it’s not clear from the text of Obama’s Mideast policy speech that one should assume, as Shavit seems to, that the president’s speech points to an interim accord, as opposed to simply sequencing the negotiation of the various elements of a comprehensive final-status accord.
Here’s the relevant portion of Obama’s May 19 speech:
Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I know that these steps alone will not resolve this conflict. Two wrenching and emotional issues 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 Israelis and Palestinians.
Since then, Obama has elaborated a bit. In his speech to AIPAC three days later, the president expressed hope that the principles he had previously articulated “can provide a foundation for negotiations toward an agreement to end the conflict and all claims.”
And at a May 25 press conference with David Cameron, Obama discussed the issue at some length:
Over the last decade, when negotiators have talked about how to achieve that outcome, there have been typically four issues that have been raised. One is the issue of what would the territorial boundaries of a new Palestinian state look like? No. 2, how could Israel feel confident that its security needs were being met? No. 3, how would the issue of Palestinian refugees be resolved? And number four, the issue of Jerusalem.
The last two questions are extraordinarily emotional. They go deep into how both the Palestinians and the Jewish people think about their own identities. Ultimately they are going to be resolved by the two parties. I believe that those two issues can be resolved if there is the prospect and the promise that we can actually get to a Palestinian state and a secure Jewish state of Israel.
And I believe that if the Palestinians and the Israelis begin talking about those two issues [borders and security] and get some resolution, they can start seeing on the horizon the possibility of a peace deal, they will then be in a position to have a — what would be a very difficult conversation about refugees and about Jerusalem.
And what my speech did was to say, let’s begin the work with the very hard-nosed but transparent and less — perhaps less emotional issues of what would the territorial boundaries look like and what would Israeli security requirements entail.
Shavit though is not the only one reading between the lines of Obama’s speech on this issue. In a May 23 essay, Tablet’s David Samuels suggests that Obama (rightly, in his view) actually sees Jerusalem and refugees as the conflict’s core and insoluble issues, even if the president is publicly talking like territory and security are the magic keys to wrapping up the whole megillah. And so, Samuels argues, Obama may secretly be aiming for something less than a final and comprehensive accord. (And he offers some fascinating, albeit highly speculative, thoughts on what might be Obama’s endgame.)
All speculation aside, it’s worth noting that heretofore the leading exponent of a borders-and-security-first approach has been David Makovsky of the pro-Israel Washington Institute on Near East Policy (who also happens to be close to Obama Mideast adviser Dennis Ross). Back in January Makovsky wrote:
It is important to demystify the borders issue, whether the parties try to solve all their problems at once or instead adopt a two-phased approach to final-status issues. The first approach is very ambitious, and its feasibility is uncertain. The second approach is also very challenging, but perhaps more attainable. Whereas Jerusalem and refugees are highly charged narrative issues that cut into the self-definition of both sides, borders and security are more manageable.
The parties could first reach an agreement on final borders with mutual recognition of Palestine as the state of the Palestinian people and Israel as the state of the Jewish people, both with equal rights for all their citizens. Such mutual recognition would be without prejudice to final-status issues. Although a form of mutual recognition was proffered in 1993, the issue of state identity was somewhat muted at the time, so it is important that the parties reaffirm it in an unambiguous manner. Jerusalem and refugees — which require extensive societal conditioning — could be negotiated later, as determined by a clear timetable accepted by both sides. In the Middle East, where all-or-nothing thinking inevitably results in nothing, an initial borders-security-recognition approach could give both sides a tangible achievement.
Makovsky also supports 1:1 land swaps to take in the majority of the settlers. He’s even made a map.
Hat tip to M.J. Rosenberg on the Makovsky article.