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Digesting Obama’s speech—some goes down easy, some hard

by Ron Kampeas, JTA

May 19, 2011 | 3:23 pm

Within hours of President Obama’s Middle East policy speech, Israeli leaders and Jewish groups on the left and right were picking through his remarks on Israel, alternately praising, fretting and criticizing.

The big news was that Obama called for negotiations based on the pre-1967 borders, with land swaps.

“We believe 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,” he said.

That prompted a round of fretting in Israel and among some American Jewish groups: Why did he say 1967 instead of 1949, when Israel’s armistice lines were established? Those were the lines that formed the basis for Israel’s borders from 1949 to 1967. Why did Obama bring up borders at all? Is there a difference between “lines” and “borders?”

Obama also said negotiations should start by focusing on territory and security; the status of Jerusalem and the question of Palestinian refugees would come later. That prompted another round of fretting about those two issues.

But there was also relief. Israel and Jewish groups were pleased Obama said he’s not happy about Fatah’s pact with Hamas. He talked about Israel as a Jewish state, and rejected “delegitimization.” He talked about a demilitarized Palestine.

What was missing in all the Thursday afternoon quarterbacking was the bigger picture: Obama talked about Israeli-Palestinian peace as part of his larger speech on U.S. policy in the region because he believes consideration of the Middle East is impossible without advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“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. “That’s certainly true for the two parties involved.”

Obama believes U.S. interests in the region will be advanced through democratization and development, but that it won’t happen unless the Israelis and the Palestinians get it together.

The rebuke to Israelis and Palestinians for failing to reach accord was implicit but unmistakable at a time when the Palestinians and Israelis appear determined to go divergent ways. Israel’s government would prefer incremental advances to an interim solution, while the Palestinians appear to be seeking unilateral statehood by September.

The rebuke is all the sharper on the eve of a visit to Washington by Benjamin Netanyahu; the Israeli prime minister had hoped the meeting would help restore the focus to the threat of Iran.

Netanyahu’s statement in response to Obama’s speech knocked back the president’s key demands, point by point.

“The viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state,” Netanyahu said, a direct reference to Obama’s call for a “viable Palestine, a secure Israel.”

The Israeli leader went on to make it clear that the speech did not go far enough in extending reassurances that the Obama administration would protect Israel’s interests during negotiations.

Netanyahu wanted Obama to go as far as President George W. Bush did in 2004.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress,” the statement said.

In his letter that year, Bush called it “unrealistic” to expect Israel to return major population centers, although he, like Obama, said the final-status negotiations should include mutually agreed land swaps. Netanyahu apparently wants to hear the same moral support for retaining some settlements that his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, extracted from Bush.

Also of concern for Netanyahu was how Obama left out Bush’s rejection of a Palestinian “right of return.” All Obama would say was that the issues of refugees and Jerusalem were “wrenching and emotional” and should be left for later.

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League national director, praised the speech as a “strong outline of principles” but said Obama didn’t get what the stakes of the refugee issue are for Israel.
“Jerusalem is emotional, yes,” he said. “Refugees is not emotional – it’s strategic.”

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