On Sunday President Obama spoke to AIPAC (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee). The President’s took the opportunity to affirm his call for the 1967 Israeli border as the territorial basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as the mainstream position in future negotiations. At times AIPAC’s response was tense, but the message of the speech was well-timed and effective:
“…(S)o long as there are those who long for a better future, we will never abandon our pursuit of a just and lasting peace that ends this conflict with two states living side by side in peace and security. This is not idealism, it is not naïveté. It is a hard-headed recognition that a genuine peace is the only path that will ultimately provide for a peaceful Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people and a Jewish state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen to literalize President Obama’s invocation of Israel’s 1967 borders as the starting point for peace talks, rejecting those borders as “indefensible.” That doesn’t have to be a sticking point, for the simple reason that President Obama expressly ruled-in land swaps–as long as they are negotiated between Israeli and Palestinian representatives; the 1967 boundaries would be the baseline for such negotiations.
Correspondingly, the interim demands of the Palestinian transitional unity government set a strict schedule, but aren’t as hard-and-fast as they sound. While Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has posted September as the date of a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence, it is important to remember that the current negotiations as framed by President Obama don’t have to be a one-shot deal. In a recent New York Times op-ed, President Abbas clarified that unilateral action was simply a response to a peace process that had stalled-out:
“Negotiations remain our first option, but due to their failure we are now compelled to turn to the international community to assist us in preserving the opportunity for a peaceful and just end to the conflict. Palestinian national unity is a key step in this regard. Contrary to what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel asserts, and can be expected to repeat this week during his visit to Washington, the choice is not between Palestinian unity or peace with Israel; it is between a two-state solution or settlement-colonies.”
Any combination of the following could be meaningful interim goals: larger areas of the West Bank could be made self-governing, an agreed-upon number of refugees could be naturalized into Israel over the course of several years, conditions for Palestinian travel to or residency in East Jerusalem could be relaxed, a long-term agreement could be worked-out to transfer parts of Israel’s West Bank water infrastructure to the Palestinian Authority, or particularly-burdensome settlements could be dismantled.
That last proposal could be a sticking-point for a Likud government, as Netanyahu’s platform takes a hard line against any further settlement withdrawals barring an agreement from all relevant Palestinian factions to renounce violence. With Hamas’ acceptance of a transition unity government with Fatah in April, the Netanyahu government will probably withold tax revenues collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority; the Sharon government’s refusal to pass tax revenues along to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas took a parliamentary majority in the 2005 elections led to an inevitable decline in public service provision, growing tension between Fatah and Hamas, and eventually internecine warfare as Fatah drove Hamas out of the West Bank and Hamas drove Fatah from Gaza. Since that time the State of Israel has generally worked with Fatah and kept Hamas and Gaza cordoned. This situation was advantageous to Fatah from a narrow perspective but also made it impossible for President Abbas, that party’s top representative, to promise peace on behalf of the Palestinians generally.
Facing only disincentives from his political supporters when it comes to making concessions and equipped to build on any West Bank territory he considers sufficiently-strategic, Netanyahu has allowed Israel to drift towards a situation in which Palestinians can only remain in permanent receivership. There is no reason to believe this situation will become more tolerable to the Palestinians or their leadership in the future, and the current fact of such receivership compromises Israel’s capacity to conduct a normal foreign policy and has long been an independent catalyst of its insecurity. So when President Obama spoke to AIPAC on Sunday, his defense of the 1967 border as the basis for negotiations came in the context of an insistence that the United States remains committed to Israel’s security: No other template has been prepared that provides the territorial basis for a Palestinian state. President Obama, President Abbas, and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal have all taken political risks and offered careful arguments for their movement towards a common framework. Prime Minister Netanyahu must accept that Israel’s security problem is not eternal but the product of an enduring unfavorable political situation, and that the viability of a Palestinian state will be as important of an issue for a Middle East peace settlement as a border that satisfies Israel’s defense requirements.