Sunday, Jul 21, 2024

Obama Pressing on '67 Borders

President Obama still expects Prime Minister Netanyahu to bow to his demand that Israel accept a return to its 1967 borders as a pre-condition to a resumption of peace negotiations. Netanyahu explicitly rejected Obama's ideas during his White House visit last month, explaining that the ‘67 borders are militarily indefensible, and that accepting them would threaten Israel's long term security. Nevertheless the White House is basing future Middle East policy on the assumption that Israel will accept the 1967 border demand. Steve Simon, the White House's National Security Council advisor on the Middle East, told American Jewish leaders in a conference call Friday that the US expects the Palestinians to agree to resume peace talks if Israel accepts the 1967 border demand. He said that Israel's agreement to the demand would be sufficient to get the Palestinians to give up their effort to secure recognition at the UN in September.
The US is committed to blocking Security Council passage of any such recognition by casting its veto, in any case, but Israeli leaders admit that there is no way they could prevent the supporters of the Palestinians in the General Assembly from passing a non-binding version of such a resolution, which would further damage Israel’s diplomatic position. The international community has largely ignored the fact that Palestinian pursuit of such a resolution without a negotiated settlement with Israel is a clear violation of the terms of the Oslo accords.
This week Netanyahu declared once again that passage of such a resolution “could actually push peace back by hardening Palestinian positions, by pushing negotiations further away.”


“First, it would violate the agreements between the Palestinians and Israel but it would also harden the Palestinian position because if the UN General Assembly adopts the Palestinian positions in advance of negotiations why should they negotiate?” Netanyahu said.


“Peace will only come from negotiations. It will be a negotiated peace. It cannot be imposed from the outside, not by any power and certainly not by one-sided UN resolutions,” he said at a news conference in Rome, after meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.


Israel believes that the US and its Quartet allies should insist that the Palestinians give up the UN gambit and return to negotiations without pre-conditions, as called for by the Oslo accords. Israel is also demanding that the PA either break its accord with Hamas, or get Hamas to accept the conditions laid down by the Quartet for recognition five years ago. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has failed to press these demands.




Every time Obama publicly suggests that Israel make a major concession, the Palestinians instantly add the suggestion to their lengthening list of preconditions to negotiations. The result is that Israel is forced to give up another bargaining point, while getting nothing in return, weakening its position when and if peace negotiations ever do start again.


In his conference call, Simon argued that the 1967 border idea was the only way to avoid the showdown in the UN in September. Simon also pointed out that procedures at the UN would require the Palestinians to initiate their request for recognition in July, meaning that time is running out to head them off. He also suggested that some Palestinian leaders are having second thoughts about the wisdom of pursuing the UN initiative.


Israel’s leaders see the situation very differently. They see Obama’s 1967 border demand as his latest attempt to place the onus on Israel for the deadlock in the peace process. Israel is also uncomfortable with the ambiguity over exactly what Obama meant when he said that the “borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” The implication is that the default US position would be the immediate imposition of 1967 borders, with any further land swaps being dependant on Palestinian agreement. In other words, Israel would have to give up the right to negotiate the retention of the new Jewish neighborhoods of East Yerushalayim built after 1967, and the largest West Bank settlement blocs.




Conceptually the concession fatally compromises the basic premise of the peace process, an exchange of land for peace. By agreeing to the 1967 borders as a starting position, Israel would be forced to cede its primary bargaining card, the land, before the negotiations even begin.


Despite Obama’s protestations to the contrary, Israel sees him as consistently attempting to impose his own terms on Israel, by giving away major Israeli concessions while getting nothing of substance for Israel in return.


For example, it was Obama who, in May 2009, after his first White House meeting with Netanyahu, gave the Palestinians the way they were looking for to avoid negotiations with Israel. It was Obama who invented the excuse of the settlement freeze.


“Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward,” Obama declared. In so doing, he killed any realistic chance of restarting negotiations. Until that point, over the previous 15 years, the Palestinians had been perfectly content to negotiate without insisting that construction be halted, but once Obama made it a must, the Palestinians felt that they could not be satisfied with anything less.


PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas recently confirmed that in a Newsweek, saying, “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. I said OK, I accept.”




Israel argues that Obama’s demands on Israel have given the Palestinians an opportunity to avoid the negotiating process, and effectively rewarded their intransigence in refusing to return to the negotiating process.


Obama is also responsible for encouraging Palestinians to seek a declaration of statehood at the next September session of the UN General Assembly. Last September, during his address at the United Nations, Obama called upon those present to, “reach for what’s best within ourselves. If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”


Suddenly and without warning, Obama had ordained September 2011 at the UN as the new deadline for declaring a Palestinian state. Not only was the statement seized upon by the Palestinians, the European Union as well adopted it as an official goal, issuing statements as recently as last month calling for a “framework agreement by September 2011.” As a practical matter, after 17 years of stalemate, expecting agreement on a negotiated peace settlement within 90 days would seem to be completely unrealistic.




Now, once again, following Obama’s lead, the Palestinians have shifted their positions. Dropping mention of the previous precondition suggested by Obama, a total construction freeze in the West Bank and East Yerushalayim, they have now embraced Obama’s 1967 border demand as their own.


Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution that, if Netanyahu “wants to be a partner he has to say it: Two states on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” Erekat said. Without such a declaration in advance, he said Palestinians would refuse to resume talks and would instead go to the UN by July 15 seeking recognition of a Palestinian state.




Erekat, of course, knows that Netanyahu publicly said that Israel would never return to the 1967 borders, and that when he said that to a joint session of Congress, he received a standing ovation. He is highly unlikely to pull back from that stand. By making 1967 borders a condition for resuming peace talks, it seems as if the Palestinians are more interested in driving a wedge between Israel and the White House than reaching a peace agreement.


In fact, Israeli officials have long been convinced that Abbas has no interest at all in negotiating with Netanyahu. In his competition with Hamas, Abbas does not want to be known as the Palestinian leader who legitimized Israel by agreeing to any kind of peace deal with it. Instead, he is focused on finding any excuse to justify his refusal to resume sincere peace talks, and to blame the subsequent deadlock on Israel rather than his own refusal to reach a peace agreement, on any terms. In that respect, Obama’s demands on Israel play into Abbas’ hands, by shifting the responsibility for the deadlock in the eyes of the media away from him and onto Israel. At the same time, Obama has failed to hold Abbas publicly accountable for his refusal to return to the negotiating table after unilaterally breaking off talks with then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert almost 3 years ago, and abandoning the goal of reaching a negotiated settlement with Israel.




In Obama’s May 19 speech at the State Department, when he publicly called for a return to the 1967 lines, he made another key proposal which undermines the negotiating process. He sought to fast track the border and security issues, and detach them from the difficult final status issues defining the future status of Yerushalayim and determining the fate of the Palestinian refugees. That, coupled with the demand for a return to the 1967 borders, amounts to a demand that Israel give up Yerushalayim and the West Bank without getting peace in return.


The proposal also undermines one of the diplomatic cornerstones of all of the peace agreements reached to date. The principle which has always been applied in successful negotiations before is that nothing is agreed until all of the points of the dispute have been resolved. That approach has been necessary in order to allow the Israelis and the Arabs to trade off concessions on different issues against one another, so that when the leaders go back to their people they can defend difficult or unpopular compromises made in one area by pointing to compensating gains which they have made on another important issue. Obama’s approach, by trying to force agreement on the issues, such as using the 1967 borders as a starting point, makes it much more difficult politically for the negotiators to use such trade-offs between issues to balance an agreement.




By publicly committing the US to a particular position, Obama encourages the side which holds that position to take it as a given, and essentially remove it from the list of items to be traded off against one another in the talks. Rather than making it easier to find ways to be flexible in dealing with issues which have become symbolically important to both sides, such as the unity of Yerushalayim for Israel, and the right of return for Palestinians, Obama’s demands make it more difficult, because there are fewer other items of equivalent importance left to bargain with.


In his attempts to jump start the stalled peace process by seeking short cuts to reach a quick agreement, Obama has revealed his ignorance of how the peace negotiating process really works in practice at the negotiating table. It also reveals his personal biases, and an inclination to attempt to impose his own idea of a fair solution on the negotiating parties. In this case, it reinforces Arab expectations that Obama will pressure Israel into making concessions, and make them less likely to engage in a true give and take with Israel at the negotiating table. At the same time, the public impression that the US is trying to dictate a solution to Israel tends to bolster support at home from Israeli leaders who show a willingness to stand up to such pressure. That is one of the reasons why Obama’s attempt to impose a settlement freeze on Netanyahu in 2009 backfired, and resistance to that demand wound up strengthening political support for Netanyahu in Israel, rather than undermining it, as the White House had expected.




Obama is now in the process of repeating the construction freeze mistake with his stand on the 1967 border issue. Israel also does not buy the US attempt to link that concession to the effort to head off the Palestinian effort to achieve unilateral recognition at the UN. Instead, Israel sees the attempt to make such a linkage as an effort by the Obama administration to avoid the necessity to keep its commitment to Israel by casting a veto in the Security Council that would prevent the Palestinians from achieving full UN membership under its charter rules. That would reduce any such recognition vote in the General Assembly to merely another symbolic defeat of Israel in that chamber, with no real significance under international law.


Israel believes that it is the responsibility of the US to point out to its Western European allies that by abandoning the principle of seeking agreement with Israel in face to face negotiations at the bargaining table, it is the Arabs who are creating an obstacle to progress toward true peace.


In fact, such a recognition vote at the UN General Assembly would give Israel a legal pretext to retaliate by declaring that some of the basic understandings at the foundation of the Oslo accords had been breached, and to therefore begin to roll back some of the concessions it made in those agreements.




In addition, Israel also believes that it has a right to demand that the US and the other members of the Quartet firmly re-assert the demands they first made in 2006, that Hamas must accept prior signed agreements, recognize Israel and foreswear violence as a pre-condition for joining any new Palestinian Authority national unity government.


So far, Obama and the Europeans have tried to soft-pedal the inherent contradictions involved in the formation of such a unity government, which would clearly be disqualified as a negotiating partner under ground rules established in the Oslo accords. The Hamas leadership has shown no signs of being more willing to accept such conditions, while the US and its allies seem to be searching for a pretext to ignore Israel’s objections and waive the requirement.




This, in fact, is a much more fundamental problem than the dispute over the 1967 borders, because it goes to the heart of the negotiating process. Once Hamas becomes part and parcel of the Palestinian Authority, its refusal to recognize Israel or agree to any permanent peace agreement undermines the whole point of trying to negotiate any agreement with the PA. That is the real reason why Abbas is seeking excuses to try to avoid returning to the negotiating table. With Hamas as an internal partner, Abbas is left with nothing to negotiate. Hamas’ inflexible rejectionist demands mean that Abbas cannot negotiate any meaningful agreement with Israel, even if he wanted to.


With that in mind, Palestinian demands for a return to the 1967 borders, and their UN recognition gambit, can be seen as attempted diversions to draw attention away from the fundamental fact that the Palestinians have abandoned all hope or expectations of reaching a negotiated agreement with Israel. Instead, with Obama’s help, the Arabs are now seeking other ways to impose their will on Israel, while at the same time seeking excuses to evade the public blame for walking away from the peace process.




Meanwhile, Israel has started mobilizing its diplomats around the world to fight UN recognition of a Palestinian state in September, even though it recognizes that it will inevitably lose that battle in hostile forums, such as votes in the UN General Assembly.


Nevertheless, Israeli diplomats will attempt to make Israel’s case in each country, that a vote to recognize a Palestinian state without a peace agreement would be a step toward delegitimizing Israel as a sovereign state.


The Israeli PR campaign against UN recognition is being coordinated by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. It includes efforts to muster support for Israel’s position from local Jewish communities, and by placing articles in the media arguing against recognition of the Palestinian state..


Foreign Ministry Director General Rafael Barak, in a memo sent to all Israeli embassies earlier this month, announced the formation of a special team of policy experts called the “September Forum” which will analyze and try to counter likely Palestinian diplomatic moves in the attempt to secure UN recognition.




Naor Gilon, who heads the Israeli foreign ministry’s Western Europe department, is developing different diplomatic strategies depending on the announced positions of European countries to the Palestinian recognition offensive. German and Italy, for example, have already expressed public objections to the Palestinian effort to achieve unilateral recognition. Israel, therefore, expects their support in the UN. On the other hand, Sweden, Ireland, Belgium and Sweden have already declared that they intend to vote for UN recognition. That leaves the positions of France, Great Britain, and most of the former members of the Soviet Eastern European block up for grabs. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Netanyahu are now planning an intensive effort to line up their support for the diplomatic showdown at the UN over Palestinian recognition.


Israel does not expect the EU as a whole to take a stand on the issue, because its internal ground rules require a unanimous consensus by all 27 EU on any disputed issue. However, the pro-Palestinian bias of the EU bureaucracy based in Brussels is taken by Israel as a given, as is a vote for Palestinian recognition by most Asian, African and South American countries.


Israeli Foreign Ministry officials expect that even after their best efforts to round up support for Israel, only a handful of countries will vote against recognition of a Palestinian state in a General Assembly vote. Thus, in September at the UN, Israel will stand almost alone. Once again, Israel will be reminded that beyond the US and Canada, it has very few real friends whose support it can count upon in the international community.




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