June 1, 2011
Obama and the quest for Mideast peace
So, why was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu steaming when he came out of his tête-á-tête with President Barack Obama on May 20? The president’s inherently pro-Palestinian, con-Israeli stance may have been another rude awakening for the prime minister, but the handwriting’s been on the wall for some time now.
Take, for example, candidate Obama’s statement in March 2007 that “nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people.” How about the Israeli people, who have had to live with the daily threat of terrorist attacks and bombings and hostile Arab armies on their borders since the inception of the Jewish state in 1948?
Netanyahu was clearly disconcerted when he heard the president refer to Hamas as “an organization that has resorted to terror” during his press conference with the prime minister. The imagery conveyed is of desperate Palestinian freedom fighters committing the occasional act of terror as a last resort to drive their Israeli oppressors from their rightful home, not of the coldblooded killers who routinely murder innocent civilians, as they did when they used a laser-guided anti-tank missile last April to specifically target an Israeli school bus, killing 16-year-old Daniel Viflic.
The president’s characterization of Hamas was particularly surprising as the organization has been responsible for the murder of more than 40 U.S. citizens since its formation in 1988 and was declared a terrorist group by the Clinton administration in 1995. Netanyahu believed the United States and Israel stood shoulder to shoulder on the longstanding policy for both countrie — which, in the case of America, dates back to 1981 and the Reagan administration — that forbids negotiating with terrorists. Yet Obama, in his Mideast policy address on May 19, soft pedaled the recent political accord between Fatah and Hamas, saying it raised “profound and legitimate questions for Israel” that Palestinian leaders will have to credibly address “… in the weeks and months to come.”
But that’s far from the only reason Netanyahu was upset with the president. Why is it that this administration feels compelled to set preconditions for Middle East peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), and that those preconditions always require Israel to make the first concessions before negotiations begin? In 2009, negotiations ran aground because Obama insisted on a moratorium on all new settlement activity in the West Bank that Israel rebuffed. Now, the principle he has set forth as a “foundation for negotiations” is that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that … the Palestinian people [can] govern themselves in a sovereign and contiguous state.”
In his speech to AIPAC on May 22, the president misled the 11,000 American Jews in the audience — 78 percent of whom had voted for him — when he stated that his framework for peace talks has “… been the template for discussions between the United States, Israel and the Palestinians since at least the Clinton administration.” The truth is that the president’s so-called “even-handed” policy strongly favors the Palestinian position and represents a major change in American policy, with dire implications for Israel and the prospects for Middle East peace.
No U.S. president, from Lyndon Johnson (who was in office during the Six-Day War) through George W. Bush, has ever asserted, implicitly or explicitly, that the Palestinians have a right to 100 percent of the West Bank and the territory governed by the pre-1967 borders. Johnson said a return to pre-1967 borders “is not a prescription for peace but for renewed hostilities.” Reagan stated that “in the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely 10 miles wide at its narrowest point. The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again.” And Bush: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” None of the prior eight American presidents since 1967 have said anything about returning to the 1967 borders or land swaps. By stating that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” Obama is asserting that (i) Palestinians are entitled to the territory governed by the pre-1967 borders and that (ii) should those borders differ, Israel must compensate the Palestinians with other land from the 4,000-year-old ancestral Jewish homeland. This is a concession Israel is to make before negotiations begin? What bargaining power would Israel have left? And, since “mutually” entails the agreement of both parties, what if one party — the Palestinians — doesn’t agree? Then you’re back to the indefensible 1967 borders.
Why does this president consistently set Israel up to take the fall? Netanyahu journeys to Washington to meet with the president at Obama’s request in March 2010 only to be presented with a list of ultimatums for restarting peace talks, including freezing settlement activity in East Jerusalem, and then, when Netanyahu hesitates, the president walks out of the meeting, snubbing him for dinner and the customary photo session for heads of state. On the eve of last month’s summit with the prime minister, he again ambushes Netanyahu by unveiling a major change in U.S. policy that favors the Palestinians. During the first six months of his presidency, Obama journeyed to Saudi Arabia and Egypt; halfway through the third year of his term, he has yet to visit Israel, America’s staunchest, most democratic and most stable and reliable ally in the region. Does anyone see a pattern here?
If Obama wants to set preconditions for peace talks, then why not adopt the most logical, most fundamental and most simplistic one set forth by Netanyahu in his address before Congress on May 24? Just as Netanyahu, and the Israeli prime ministers before him dating back to Menachem Begin in 1978, have stated that they will accept a Palestinian state, why doesn’t the president join him in calling for the Palestinian leadership to declare that they will accept a Jewish state? How can there ever be peace if there is no meeting of the minds on this basic premise? Why wasn’t that the framework for peace negotiations put forth by the president instead of dancing around the issue of having Hamas at the bargaining table?
The last time Israel swapped land for peace —the Gaza Strip in 2005 — the direct consequence was to have less land and less peace. With Hamas governing Gaza, suicide bombings, rocket attacks and terrorist strikes against Israeli civilian targets increased markedly, Hamas’ charter (Article 7) advocates the killing of all Jews (not just Israelis, mind you) by Muslims and it has never accepted Israel’s right to exist, stressing its commitment to “obliterating” Israel (preamble to Hamas charter). Hamas is no friend of America, either. FBI Director Robert Mueller, whose tenure Obama wishes to extend another two years, cited in testimony before the U.S. Senate that “there is a … threat of a coordinated terrorist attack in the U.S. from Palestinian terrorist organizations, such as Hamas.” According to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Hamas and another terrorist organization, Hezbollah, have joined with Iran in fomenting “subversive activity” in Latin America.
So, if the president is bound and determined to set preconditions for negotiations between Israel and the newly united Fatah-Hamas Palestinian Authority, why did he not insist — in firm, clear language — that Hamas first renounce terror, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and affirm the previous agreements between the PA and Israel? Why does the first olive branch always have to come from Israel, and how can it when the party across the table is aiming a gun at its heart? Although the president took a tougher stance on Hamas in his speech to AIPAC — clearly appealing for the Jewish vote — why didn’t he do so during his national address, when the entire Arab world was listening? Modified messages for different audiences brings to mind imagery of Yasser Arafat’s pro-peace remarks in English for Western audiences and his pro-violence oratory in Arabic for Muslims.
In his Mideast policy address, Obama also referenced two “wrenching and emotional issues” that remain: “the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.” But his avowed two-state solution with “Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people” is illusory if you give any credence whatsoever to a so-called Palestinian “right of return.” The Jewish state ceases to exist if Palestinian refugees are allowed to return to their former homes in Israel. Hamas knows this, Fatah knows this, and the president knows this. Hamas has never agreed to the permanent (as opposed to “transitional”), peaceful, side-by-side coexistence of a Palestinian state with a Jewish state — not when Hamas chieftain Khaled Meshaal met with ex-President Jimmy Carter in 2008 and not now. In the words of another Hamas leader, Nizar Rayyan, “Israel is an impossibility. It is an offense against God.”
If he was going to mention refugees, why didn’t the president raise the issue of the 3,000-year-old Jewish communities in Arab lands that were ethnically cleansed between 1948 and the early 1970s? Commencing with Arab League retaliation for the declaration of the State of Israel by the United Nations, 1 million Jews were forcibly removed from their homes and personal property, forfeiting 62,000 square miles of land (nearly five times Israel’s 12,600 square miles) and assets worth approximately $300 billion. What of their “right of return”? No one believes Jews will ever be allowed to once again peacefully coexist in Muslim lands where they lived for centuries, so why should Israelis think they can survive in a Muslim-majority Israel?
Instead of bringing the parties closer to the bargaining table, Obama has pushed them farther apart. President Bush gave voice to what has been understood by every American president since Johnson when he observed in 2004 that “an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.” By reintroducing the Palestinian refugee issue, Obama has further emboldened Fatah and Hamas, leading them to take yet another negotiating position that is a nonstarter for Israel. After all, you can’t expect Palestinians to take a less pro-Palestinian stance than the president of the United States …
Hamas is no more America’s friend than is al-Qaeda or Hezbollah. Israel may be Hamas’ immediate target, but Jews everywhere and all of Western culture — those who “have closed [their] ears to the Messenger of Allah” (Rayyan) — is in their crosshairs. The president had a golden opportunity to send a strong, unequivocal message that there is no place for a defiant Hamas to be a part of the Middle East peace process, and he didn’t take it, a fact that is troubling for any number of reasons, not the least of which is why the president used a speech that was billed to be a major policy pronouncement on the Arab spring to instead put Israel once again on the chopping block.
The Arab spring movement is not about Arabs rebelling against Israelis; it’s about the Arab street rebelling against repressive Arab rulers in Iran (June 2009), Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria. So why divert attention away to once again scapegoat the Jews? Osama bin Laden did it when, post-9/11, he adopted the mantle and “justification” of Palestinian freedom fighter. Bashar al-Assad did it when he orchestrated having Palestinian refugees storm the Syrian border with Israel on May 15, the day after the anniversary of Israel’s independence.
When Obama remarked in April 2010 that the Middle East conflict ended up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure,” he drew an explicit link between Israeli-Palestinian strife and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremism and terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. This is not the first time the president has expressed this distorted view that blames Israel for the threat of Islamic terrorism facing Western countries. In October 2007, he asserted that “our neglect of the Middle East peace process has spurred despair and fueled terrorism.” This outrageous blood libel accepts the narrative of al-Qaeda and speaks volumes about this president’s beliefs and thought processes. Perhaps the virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Israel preachings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., who was Obama’s pastor for nearly 20 years, officiated at his wedding, baptized his children, gave him the title of his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” and served as his “sounding board” and spiritual mentor, have had more of an influence on Obama’s world view than people realize.
If the president is endeavoring to curry favor in the Muslim world by pressuring Israel back to the bargaining table with (i) a seemingly irreconcilable partner, (ii) a new, “zero-sum” game tied to 1967 borders with “swaps” that means Israel has to give up some of its own pre-1967 territory to get West Bank settlements, (iii) a contiguous Palestinian state that borders Israel, Jordan and Egypt that could connect Palestine while dividing Israel and does nothing to ensure Israel’s security, (iv) a potential “right to return” for Palestinian refugees — despite their now getting their own sovereign country, and (v) a divided Jerusalem, then the Obama administration has for the second time in three years doomed peace talks before they can even start. Is it any wonder Netanyahu is steaming and this president has the lowest approval rating among Israelis of any sitting American president? Now, if only American Jews would wake up …
Lloyd Greif, the son of Holocaust survivors, is president and CEO of Greif & Co., a member of the board of directors of the California Chamber of Commerce and benefactor of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Southern California.