I have some advice for President Barack Obama, who is going to be walking into the lion’s den when he speaks before the 10,000 AIPAC delegates at their national conference this Sunday.
Here’s my advice. Don’t backpedal. Look the delegates in their 20,000 eyes and say, “Friends, it’s not about 1967, it’s about 2067.”
Why is this so important? Because all Obama did in his policy speech yesterday was mention three little words. Three little words. And suddenly he is facing the wrath of an organized, pro-Israel community that sees in those three little words all forms of betrayal, subjugation…. Auschwitz.
What are the three words? Nineteen. Sixty. Seven.
“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” the president said in his Middle East speech at the State Department on May 19, “so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”
Other presidents have made clear that a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinian would be based on mutually agreed upon borders. There has never been a shred of doubt that the starting point for negotiations would be the 1967 borders. What Obama did was acknowledge a line the Israelis have spent four decades and billions of dollars trying to erase.
“…it is not news that the eventual borders of a Palestinian state would be based on land swaps from the 1967 dividing line,” Glenn Kess wrote in the Washington Post. “But it makes a difference when the president of the United States says it, particularly in a carefully staged speech at the State Department. This then is not an off-the-cuff remark, but a carefully considered statement of U.S. policy.”
In other words, the man who just gave orders to shoot Osama in the eye is no longer interested in pussyfooting around the issue. In his meeting this morning with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama reiterated his attempt at reality therapy. According to The New York Times:
“Mr. Obama, for his part, did not back away from his proposal the day before. But he reassured Mr. Netanyahu that Israel’s security would remain paramount in any American push to resolve the conflict, and he said the Palestinians would face tough choices over the role of Hamas, which Mr. Netanyahu called ‘the Palestinian version of Al Qaeda.’”
By sticking to his rhetorical guns, Obama will outrage many Jewish groups. The far right Zionist Organization of America is planning a rally against Obama at the White House. One group called the President’s formulation a return to “Auschwitz borders.”
(To be fair, the most antagonistic responses have come from groups that have always criticized Obama. Nothing new there. As for the ZOA, in 2003 they also held a rally against George W. Bush for inviting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House.)
More mainstream pro-Israel groups, like AIPAC, will side naturally with Netanyahu, in his condemnation of the 1967 remark.
But amidst all the brouhaha, two important facts should be noted:
1) Obama didn’t say he’d convene negotiations, invite the sides to Camp David, or send a special envoy. In other words, his speech, while directly fingering the key issues, was an indirect way of saying, ‘I’m not getting involved right now.’ With Hamas ascendant, the Middle East in turmoil and his own domestic election on the horizon, there is no reason for the president to step in now. As The Journal’s reporter Jonah Lowenfeld pointed out, this is like Obama’s health care strategy: Here are the issues, you guys work it out, call me when you’re ready.
2) We can now spend tons of time and energy and outrage arguing about 1967, but what matters is what kind of country Israel will be in five decades. Without a settlement, Israel will be a majority Palestinian country. Without a settlement, Israel’s security, legitimacy and moral standing will erode, then vanish. Without a settlement, Israel’s economy will stall. Without a settlement, Israel will only have short-term security.
This is not the opinion of the peace camp. This is a fact every Israeli prime minister from Yitzhak Rabin through Ariel Sharon to Ehud Olmert has acknowledged. It’s what a group of 40 former Israeli security experts, Mossad chiefs and generals tried to get Netanyahu to accept earlier this year.
1967 was a watershed year for Israel, the Middle East, America and the world. In redefining a relatively small border, The Six Day War realigned the world. But what 1967 didn’t do was freeze history forever.
Obama gets this. Time is not on Israel’s side. What he needs to help Israel’s friends do is stop yelling about Israel’s borders five decades ago, and worry about what Israel’s borders will look like five decades from now.