President Barack Obama yesterday endorsed a key Palestinian demand, calling on Israel to agree to borders of a Palestinian state “based on the 1967 lines” that existed before Israel captured the West Bank and Jerusalem that year in the Six Day War with Arab nations.
It was the first time a U.S. president has explicitly backed using the 1967 boundaries as the starting point for talks that would have Israel cede control of land to Palestinians in return for peace and security. The proposal may have little impact, as Obama offered no steps to restart the stalled peace talks.
The proposal drew immediate fire from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who meets with Obama at the White House today. Netanyahu said in a statement that the 1967 boundaries would be “indefensible” and could leave major Jewish population centers behind Palestinian lines.
Obama said a deal along 1967 lines needs to include land exchanges to allow Israel to retain major settlement blocs in return for granting offsetting land to Palestinians.
“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states,” Obama said in a major policy speech at the State Department in Washington outlining his vision for the Middle East.
Some potential Republican presidential candidates saw an opening to attack Obama as insufficiently pro-Israel. “Insistence on a return to the 1967 border is a mistaken and very dangerous demand,” said former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.
“President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus,” former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said in a statement.
Obama’s language was an incremental move, not a break with what has been U.S. policy, said Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt. He said that while it has long been assumed that 1967 borders will form the basis for an agreement, “when you finally get an articulation of U.S. policy, it means something.”
Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, said, “I think it’s a small step in the right direction because it reaffirms the U.S. commitment to the 1967 lines, two states and equal swaps.”
“We know by now that, left to themselves, the Israelis and Palestinians will never resolve” their issues, Brzezinski, who serves as a counselor and trustee for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an interview.
‘Burdens of the Past’
Obama’s wide-ranging speech laid out for Americans the administration’s plan to advance values while safeguarding national interests in reaction to the rapid change sweeping the Middle East.
“At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever,” Obama said, of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations stalled shortly after they resumed in September 2010 when Netanyahu refused to extend a settlement-building freeze that Palestinians had said was necessary for talks to continue.
While Obama reaffirmed the need to ensure Israel’s security and the right of Palestinians to “govern themselves” in a “sovereign and contiguous” state, the president had tough words for both sides.
Time is working against Israel, Obama said. The Palestinian population is increasing and “the dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation,” he said.
The president also called for “permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.” The statement didn’t seem to leave room for Israel’s position that any agreement must allow Israeli troops to patrol the western seam of an eventual Palestinian state and Jordan to prevent terrorist groups from entering.
Netanyahu announced in his statement that when he meets with Obama, he “will make clear that the defense of Israel requires an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River.”
Reaction from members of Netanyahu’s coalition government was even harsher.
Danny Danon, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, likened Obama’s plan to one to eliminate Israel by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, adding that the U.S. president hoped “to remove the State of Israel from the map.”
Still, some analysts pointed out that Obama hewed to demands Israelis have made in the past, including the insistence that security come before issues such as the fate of Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees.
“The remarks of the president were limited to only two aspects of the six core issues: borders and security,” Maged Abdelaziz, Egypt’s ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters in New York. Obama did not talk about settlements, water and refugees, Abdelaziz said.
At the same time, Obama’s mention of land swaps seemed to endorse a 2004 agreement between then-President George W. Bush and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
In a 2004 letter Bush sent to Sharon, he recognized that any peace agreement must take into account major settlement blocs built since Israel gained control of the West Bank and Jerusalem in June 1967, as well as the fact that Israel would not relinquish Jerusalem. In return, Sharon moved to withdraw completely from Gaza and some parts of the West Bank.
Obama made clear that the Palestinian Authority’s move to form a unity government with the Islamic militant group Hamas posed “profound and legitimate questions for Israel.” Hamas is considered a terrorist group by the U.S., the European Union and Israel.
“How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” Obama said.
He dismissed plans by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to unilaterally pursue United Nations recognition of an independent state within the 1967 borders in a September vote.
In Ramallah, Abbas “expressed his appreciations” to Obama for continuing to press for talks, according to a statement by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.