Obama, Israel/Palestine, and the 1967 Borders
It seems that no one is particularly happy with Obama’s proposal for a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But this should not be a surprise to anyone. If someone were to present a peace plan that made everyone happy — even moderately so — then one of the most vexing problems of the past half-century would be solved … unless you believe that a great many Israelis and Palestinians don’t want the safety and security that are bound up with striking a deal. This is simply not my position; for all their stubbornness and their love of playing the blame game, the vast majority of the people living in this region desire the same good things in life that human beings everywhere desire.
With regard to Obama’s speech, then, it’s important to try to figure out what’s really going on and how the problems are little more than politically-motivated inventions. The central problem identified by Israel’s Prime Minister — and by supporters of Israel all over the world — is the call for a return to the 1967 borders, which Netanyahu says are indefensible.
To my mind, all the talk about the 1967 borders seems like nothing more than unneccesary hand-wringing or intentional obfuscation. The idea that a Palestinian state would be based on the 1967 borders is not a new one, nor is it an unusual position for the American President to take. Indeed, Israel and its allies are fooling themselves if they think that this isn’t what everyone has been discussing at least since the early 1990s.
Frankly, the argument about indefensibility simpy doesn’t hold, not when we all know well the strength of Israel’s military, the commitment of the United States to Israel’s protection, and if we believe that a peace plan would actually yield peace along with this autonomous Palestinian state. The biggest threat to Israel today is not an independent Palestine along the 1967 borders; it’s a nuclear Iran. But a nuclear Iran is also the biggest threat to all of the Arab states in the region, which gives everyone an incentive to work together rather than to fight one another.
What we should be asking Netanyahu and his supporters is this: If not a Palestinian state based on land not included in Israel’s 1967 borders, with some necessary swapping of land, then where would you have a Palestinian state? Honestly, all the hubbub seems akin to saying, “No Palestinian state anywhere, ever.” But if that’s Netanyahu’s position, then there’s a far more serious problem here than the wording of Obama’s speech and how it makes some people feel uneasy about his commitment to Israel. If Netanyahu believes that the territory held by Israel since the Six Day War can’t be the location of an independent Palestinian state, then there simply isn’t going to be a peace deal while this government is in power. The Prime Minister should be forced to make this plain, both to his allies and to his own people … with all of the consequences for his government that will follow.
On the other side of the coin, all of this wailing and gnashing of teeth from Israel and its supporters obscures a central point made in Obama’s speech: the Palestinians should not unilaterally declare their independent statehood, as they have been suggesting they will do, but should proceed through the channels that, to this point, haven’t been working. Obama’s position is that doing things his way would be the best (or perhaps the only) way to secure a stable, lasting peace between an independent Palestinian state and the Jewish state of Israel. But what needs to be recognized is that this presents something of a bitter pill for the Palestinians to swallow, as it is bound up with recognition of the Jewish character of Israel and with the trading away the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
This is in addition to Obama’s repeated repudiation of any deal between Fatah and a version of Hamas that doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. Summed up, this is a lot fo concessions for the Palestinians to make … but they are both vital and long-standing ones. If Hamas will not recognize Israel’s right to exist and if the Palestinian leadership generally cannot accept Israel as a Jewish state, then it should be made plain to their allies and their constituents that peace is really not possible on their watch. After all, if there is to be an autonomous Palestinian state, then what reason could Palestinian leaders give for their refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state? The only one is that doing so would mean giving up Palestinian claims to territory within the current borders of Israel. But this is precisely what the peace process and the creation of a Palestinian state is meant to address.
In the end, it’s hard to imagine how Israel and its supporters could have seen Obama’s speech as a sign of his lack of support. But in making the ruckus they’ve made over the past week, they’ve come perilously close to presenting themselves as either unreasonable, uninterested in peace, or unable to hear what’s being said to them. What’s more, all this fuss over so little has meant that the Palestinians have largely been able to sit quietly — neither accepting nor refuting the points raised by Obama’s speech — while the Israeli government and its supporters have taken the position of opposition to ideas with which they ought to be in agreement, ideas that most people who take a long view of the conflict can see as the only possible road to a just and lasting peace.