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Jewish Journal

Obama’s Middle East speech draws ire and support

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax and Jonah Lowenfeld

May 19, 2011 | 5:21 pm

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

In his speech at the State Department on Thursday, President Barack Obama addressed the rapidly changing situation in the Middle East and put forward Israel’s pre-1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations that would yield a future Palestinian state.

Even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is set to meet with Obama in Washington on Friday, released a statement disputing most of what Obama said about the Israel-Palestinian situation,  the immediate reaction among American Jewish leaders and Israel-related organizations to the speech was mixed. Groups on the left applauded the president’s outline while hoping for further action. Some right-leaning organizations expressed surprise and disappointment at the president’s promotion of the pre-1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations—even as they praised Obama’s clear opposition to the Palestinian plan to seek a declaration of statehood along those same borders from the United Nations’ General Assembly in September.

The pro-peace advocacy group J Street, which was founded to push for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, applauded the president’s speech. “The overall tone and overall framing of the current urgency of the situation we were very, very pleased with,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, said in an interview.

The plan that Obama outlined would treat the 1967 borders as a basic outline for a Palestinian state, and calls for mutually agreeable land swaps to achieve both security for Israel and a sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state. “That’s exactly the approach that J Street called for in December,” Ben-Ami said.

In an advertisement that appeared in Israeli papers this week, 18 Israeli generals, 5 former ambassadors and many others signed a similarly themed statement. “Recognizing a Palestinian State Based On the 1967 Borders is Vital for Israel’s Existence,” the English version of the ad read. With the help of $65,000 raised from over 1,000 donors, J Street reprinted the ad in the New York Times on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu called the 1967 lines “indefensible,” and many American Jewish organizations echoed Netanyahu’s assessment in their remarks.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center, called the plan a return to “1967 Auschwitz Borders,” and took strong issue with Obama’s call for basing negotiations on Israel’s pre-1967 borders, with mutually agreed upon land swaps. Hier called such a possibility, while Hamas shares power in the Palestinian territories, living in a “fantasy world.”

“We have all these diplomats all around the world trying to force Israel into a deal with Hamas, when Hamas this very day and this very week has made clear they will never, ever recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel. So who are we kidding?”

Hier said the Auschwitz reference came from a 1969 statement by Abba Eban, then foreign minister of Israel. Eban told Der Spiegel: “We have openly said that the map will never again be the same as on June 4, 1967. For us, this is a matter of security and of principles. The June map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger. I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz.”

“I don’t like to use the Auschwitz terminology, I don’t like to make that comparison,” Hier said. “I use it here to point out that Israel’s borders have to be defensible.”

Story continues after the jump.

Video courtesy of WhiteHouse.gov

Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University, called the Auschwitz reference a “cheap and offensive trivialization.” Berenbaum said he is a good friend of Hier’s and respects him, but emphasized Hier “knows better.”

“The entire modern Jewish history since the Holocaust has been toward the empowerment of the Jewish people. And if we are to perceive even for a moment that we are as disempowered as the Jews were at Auschwitz, we are denying all of our post-1945 Jewish history, and that is an insult to everything the Jewish community has achieved in terms of military, political and economic power,” Berenbaum said.

“Answer one question,” Berenbaum added. “How many tanks did Jews have at Auschwitz? How many planes? Missiles, bombs, troops?”

Bnai B’rith International also issued a statement commending the speech while expressing concern at the President’s reliance on pre-1967 borders, but other Jewish organizations did not share those reservations.

“We support the President’s vision of a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement with strong security provisions for Israel, and a non-militarized Palestinian state,” read a statement issued by Robert G. Sugarman, ADL National Chair, and Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. “We appreciate his direct rejection of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and his understanding that the Hamas-Fatah agreement poses major problems for Israel.”

The ADL statement commended Obama’s affirmation of the moral and strategic connections between Israel and the United States, and said the speech was a welcome measure of Obama’s Israel barometer.

“This Administration has come a long way in two years in terms of understanding of the nuances involved in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace and a better understanding of the realities and challenges confronting Israel.” Almost exactly two years ago, Obama made his first speech, in Cairo, on the Middle East, which was seen as an overture to the Muslim world, but enraged many supporters of Israel.

The Israel Project, a pro-Israel education organization which has called the Palestinian plan to unilaterally seek recognition of a state on the 1967 borders in the United Nations’ General Assembly in September “a clear attempt to delegitimize and attack Israel,” found much that was praiseworthy in Obama’s speech.

“He told Palestinians that they should return to negotiations rather than seek empty declarations at the U.N. that will gain them nothing. That is an important marker that the United States will oppose that effort,” Israel Project Senior Director Alan Elsner said.

Elsner also expressed appreciation for Obama’s assessment of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and which recently entered into a unity government with the Fatah faction that controls parts of the West Bank. “President Obama’s recognition that Israel should not be expected to negotiate with an organization dedicated to its destruction was constructive,” Elsner said.

There was disagreement among American Jewish political leaders about whether the president’s speech put the onus for future action on the Israelis or on the Palestinians.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, said that the president’s speech “undermines our special relationship with Israel and weakens our ally’s ability to defend itself.”

“By keeping the burden and thus the spotlight on Israel, the President is only giving the Palestinian Authority more incentive to carry on its unhelpful game of sidestepping negotiations and failing to put an end to terrorism,” Cantor said in an emailed statement. “Creating another Palestinian terror state on Israel’s borders is something that none of us want.”

California Congressman Howard Berman, ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, came to the exact opposite conclusion. He said the president’s speech “puts the ball squarely in the Palestinian court.”

“The Palestinians must resolve their Hamas problem once and for all: either jettison Hamas or do the seemingly impossible and change them into a respectable, anti-violence organization that recognizes Israel and accepts all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements as the basis for going forward,” Berman said in a statement. “The Palestinians must show they’re serious about peace-making. That means no games at the UN, no partnership with terrorists, no threats to take Israel to the International Criminal Court, and no boycott of negotiations. When the current phase of Palestinian posturing ends, we can begin to address some of the serious issues the President and others have raised.”

For its part, Americans for Peace Now put a statement on it Web site from the group’s President and CEO Debra DeLee welcoming Obama’s “pragmatic” approach to the recent reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. 

“It is indeed incumbent on the Palestinians to provide a credible answer to those who suggest that Israel cannot negotiate peace with a unity government. As we have long argued, any Palestinian government should be judged by its actions and positions, not it composition,” DeLee said.

While many felt the president didn’t say much that was new regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what was significant was that he laid out policies and motivations clearly.

“It’s an important shift in the articulation of American foreign policy, which has rested on the belief that the 1967 border is the basis for a two-state solution, but has not been formally declared in this explicit fashion,” said David Myers, chairman of UCLA’s history department. “At the same time, it must be noted that every serious peace proposal rests on this very proposition, so it is not new in that regard. Moreover, it is not clear whether it will make any difference unless the President makes clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that it’s no longer possible to sit on his hands and do nothing.”

Obama’s speech urged the Israelis and Palestinians to solve territorial and security issues first, even though the “wrenching and emotional” disputes over the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees remained unresolved.

Netanyahu took issue with this, saying that the U.S., under President George W. Bush,  had committed in 2004 to a solution that would “ensure Israel’s well-being as a Jewish state by making clear that Palestinian refugees will settle in a future Palestinian state rather than in Israel.”

“Without a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem outside the borders of Israel,” Netanyahu’s statement said, “no territorial concession will bring peace.”

Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, said he believes the speech was addressed not toward the Middle East, but toward the Washington establishment that needs to understand “we are working against the clock.”

“His message was that America needs to understand the moment in history that we are all witnessing in the Mideast,” Al-Marayati said, “and unless we catch up with where events are taking the region, we are going to be left out in terms of being of any relevance in the region,” Al-Marayati said. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is “probably going to be one of the last things resolved or addressed vis a vis the Arab Spring,” he continued. “As we see more dictators being toppled, there is going to be more of a desire by the people of the regions to see a resolution to [the conflict with Israel], and the United States and the Israeli government are both going to be faced with difficult decisions.”

The Arab Spring has proven that the power lies with the people, Al-Marayati said, and he believes “the will of the people has been determined—to have change without resorting to political violence. And anyone that continues to use ideological violence as an instrument of change in time will also be irrelevant.”

That is why he believes Hamas will be marginalized “unless they come to grips with reality – a two-state solution,” Al-Marayati said.

Obama’s will speak at the annual AIPAC conference next week, where he is likely reveal more details about how he will back up the policies he articulated Thursday at the State Department.

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