Conventional Wisdom be Damned: Israel’s 1967 Border, Political Timing, and Justice

President Obama has declared his support for a 2-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict–conforming to Israel’s 1967 borders.  He admitted that compensatory land swaps between Israel and a future Palestinian state were a practical probability, but his support for what has long been the moderate Arab position for a territorial solution to a 44-year status dispute comes after an alternating policy of neglect and abuse by past and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

President Barack Obama delivers a key Middle East policy speech on Thursday, May 19, 2011. He surprises everyone aside form a handful of close advisors when he calls for a Palestinian state to be based on the 1967 border between Israel and the Territories. REUTERS file photo.

President Obama can bring significant diplomatic pressure to bear; the United States is of course Israel’s most-generous benefactor by far.  Tangible progress has not been made on providing the space for a Palestinian state since Ariel Sharon was the Israeli Prime Minister–ironic considering Sharon’s past Likud credentials.  What makes President Obama’s current announcement news is that the United States would normally be the UN member state most-inclined and able to quash a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence through that body–which the Palestinian Authority recently threatened as its diplomatic outside option if negotiations with Israel do not restart and achieve something substantive by September.  President Nicholas Sarkozy of France has already indicated sympathy with that approach on several occasions.

The idea of a contiguous Palestine is neither fantastic nor does it pose the kind of strategic threat to Israel that it sounds like.  The exact 1967 borders aren’t necessarily optimal territory for a Palestinian state in a 2-state solution, either.  Provided that East Jerusalem, which is a major Palestinian population and employment base, were part of a Palestinian state, some contiguous Jewish settlements might be recognized as annexed to Israel, and as territorial compensation the Negev could become a 3rd segment of a Palestinian state along a West Bank-Gaza viaduct.

I’m definitely not saying that the 44-year occupation has suddenly been solved, but if President Obama sticks to this position, organized opposition to a Palestinian declaration of independence could collapse by September.  That puts pressure on Netanyahu in a way it has never been on an Israeli Prime Minister.  Again, that doesn’t mean it will bring him around, but it would impose diplomatic and material costs over time that would push him towards settlement.

Some will remain skeptical of President Obama’s announcement of support for Palestinian statehood, arguing that President George W. Bush’s “Road Map for Peace,” with its attendant goal of Palestinian statehood, amounted to the same stale promise; it does not.  This is what George W. Bush said in 2002:

“Today, Palestinian authorities are encouraging, not opposing, terrorism.  This is unacceptable. And the United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure…”

George W. Bush with his assembled foreign policy team during his 2002 Rose Garden speech proposing in broad outline a way out of the then-35-year Israel-Palestine conflict. Due to a continual mismatch between hardliners and doves in the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, the status of the occupied territories has now been in episodically-violent limbo for 44 years.

W. Bush didn’t call for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, nor did he say he was willing to support a Palestinian state at the time of his speech.  Regarding terrorism by Palestinian militants (which, grim as it can be today, was a much more-serious issue in 2002), Obama said no more than that Israeli concerns about Hamas’ role in a unity government were legitimate.  The Liberal Ironist won’t pull a Stephen Colbert and say “Finally, the problem is solved!” but this is the furthest towards the Palestinians that US diplomatic initiative has traveled.

A later section of George W. Bush’s 2002 speech on Palestinian statehood also warrants attention, underlining as it does the diplomatic nuances that illustrate how far President Obama’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict has shifted towards skepticism of the currrent Israeli government:

“I’ve asked Secretary Powell to work intensively with Middle Eastern and international leaders to realize the vision of a Palestinian state, focusing them on a comprehensive plan to support Palestinian reform and institution-building.

“Ultimately, Israelis and Palestinians must address the core issues that divide them if there is to be a real peace, resolving all claims and ending the conflict between them.  This means that the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 will be ended through a settlement negotiated between the parties, based on U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, with Israeli withdrawal to secure and recognize borders.

“We must also resolve questions concerning Jerusalem, the plight and future of Palestinian refugees, and a final peace between Israel and Lebanon, and Israel and a Syria that supports peace and fights terror.”

UN Resolution 242 (1967) mentions “land for peace” but does not recognize Palestinian sovereignty or unification.  It was assumed at the time that the West Bank would be restored as Jordanian territory and the Gaza Strip returned to Egyptian occupation.  In fact, the Clinton Administration’s position was even that Resolution 242’s call for “land for peace” doesn’t require recognition of the 1967 border now that negotiations were over Palestinian statehood, but simply that Palestinian statehood however-conceived would constitute the land given in exchange for peace.

You might think that sounds like diplomatic double-talk (and you might be right), but the fact is that President W. Bush never recognized the 1967 borders as the territory of a Palestinian state; likewise, he never says more than that the status of Jerusalem must be “resolved” (as surely it must).

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't seem to have a strategy or vision, outside of stalling on negotiations with the Palestinian Authority until he rushes construction of new Jewish settlements on precisely those parts of the West Bank needed for a Palestinian state to be economically-viable. Of course, a Palestinian Authority that could not support itself from its own largely-unemployed population and minimally-taxable land would remain in permanent Israeli receivership; as the refrain goes, under such conditions Israel could not remain both Jewish and democratic. No Likud Party as Netanyahu would leave it would put Israel's democratic political system before its status as a Jewish state in such a future. Photo by Getty.

Months ago the Liberal Ironist expressed concern that Netanyahu didn’t have any intention of settling the contested status of the Palestinian Territories; more recently I opined that Netanyahu’s continued settlement construction in the West Bank and near-total denial of Palestian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did much to bring Fatah and Hamas together to press for statehood along the 1967 borders and a pending unilateral declaration of independence.  Yesterday President Obama rejected conventional equivocation and sided with the Arab street.  He did that when he said reliable ally and corrupt autocrat Hosni Mubarak had lost the right to rule Egypt, and he did it when he cobbled together an international coalition (however tragically-late) to undertake airstrikes to protect civilians and break Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s repressive power in Libya.  This time he has acknowledged that Likud’s foot-dragging on peace talks with the Palestinian Authority are intolerable.  While campaigning for President, Obama once said,
“About the old saying, ‘My country, right or wrong’–I agree.  If it’s right, keep it right.  And if it’s wrong–make it right.”  With this subtle but profound shift in policy towards Israel and the Palestinian Authority, President Obama has again demonstrated a unique capacity for both political timing and a concern with justice.


One thought on “Conventional Wisdom be Damned: Israel’s 1967 Border, Political Timing, and Justice

  1. Pingback: Libya’s Mad Dog Dictator Bears His Fangs: Now is the Time for the United States to Get Involved | The Liberal Ironist

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