Obama Tilts Towards Europe
In his June 24 2002 Rose Garden speech, President George W. Bush made clear that the purpose of Oslo was not the creation of a Palestinian state, but peace. He disabused the Palestinians of the notion that a Palestinian state is inevitable, and let them know that it must be earned. That state would have to be based on governmental financial transparency, freedom of citizens to criticize the government without fear of repercussions, the rule of law, and division of governmental power. He made clear that a Palestinian state would not be born from terrorism.
Bush was not refuting a straw man, but rather the traditional position of the EU. Western Europe has long viewed the very creation of Israel as, at best, a mistake creating myriad unnecessary headaches with the Arab world, and, at worst, a grave injustice inflicted on the hapless Palestinians. For the Europeans the formation of a Palestinian state has long been the central goal of the peace process. Israel is always called upon to take brave steps for peace, and criticized for failing to do so, whereas the Palestinians are given a complete pass when they fail to live up to their own commitments.
To further the goal of a Palestine state, the EU has consistently urged a fixed timetable by which the Israelis and Palestinians should enter into a final negotiated settlement or a Palestinian state would be declared. (Such a deadline for the declaration of a Palestinian state effectively ensures that the Palestinians will not negotiate with Israel in good faith, just as they are refusing to negotiate at present in anticipation of a declaration of a Palestinian state by the UN General Assembly in September.)
At the outset of the Roadmap, President Bush had to stand firm against the other members of the so-called Quartet in demanding a set of performance based measures that both sides needed to meet at each stage of the process before proceeding to the next stage. The other members of the Quartet favored a deadline for the declaration of Palestinian statehood.
FROM THE OUTSET, the Obama administration leaned far closer to the European position that that staked out by President Bush. Thus Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declared “non-binding” the letter from Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in which Bush acknowledged that “new realities on the ground” since 1967 made a complete withdrawal to the armistice lines as of June 4 1967 unthinkable, even though the letter was ratified by large majorities in both houses of Congress.
President Obama’s expressed his conviction that the time was ripe for the achievement of a final status agreement, and made the appointment of a special envoy to advance the “peace” process, Senator George Mitchell, his first major act in office. The President’s confidence about his ability to succeed where all previous presidents had failed was predicated on the belief that the final borders of Palestine were already well-known, and that the rest could be achieved by American pressure on Israel. That is certainly how the Palestinians read him, especially after he demanded a halt to all Israeli “settlement” activity, including building in the new Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem built after 1967. Mahmoud Abbas told the Washington Post editorial board, after his first meeting with Obama, that he saw no need to negotiate with Israel, and preferred to simply see what progress could be achieved through American pressure on Israel.
Israeli security concerns received scant attention from the new administration. National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones followed the traditional European prescription to allay Israeli concerns about weapons and terrorists entering the West Bank via the Jordan River: international peacekeepers. After its experience with U.N. peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, under whose watchful eye, Hizbullah has amassed an arsenal of 50,000 missiles since the end of the Second Lebanon War, Israel was hardly reassured.
FOR THOSE INCLINED TO BE DOUBTFUL of President Obama’s warmth for Israel and concern for her existence, there was plenty of cause for concern in last week’s speech. For starters, there was the timing of the speech itself. Though nominally a speech about Arab Spring, the President had little to say of practical consequence on that subject. It is far too late for the United States to get ahead of the curve or effect events in any significant fashion. Had Obama responded with some vigor to the brutal suppression in Iran after the stolen elections of summer 2009 or when the Assad regime in Syria started mowing down civilians, he might have had an impact on the course of events in those two countries. But at this point his potential influence is negligible.
Only within the context of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to the United States the next day and his scheduled appearance before a joint session of Congress did the timing of the President’s speech make sense. The impression given was that Obama hoped to constrain Netanyahu in advance and intimidate him from presenting Israel’s case too strongly in Congress.
Then there is the matter of President’s vision of a final settlement based upon the 1967 lines – i.e., the 1949 armistice lines – with certain border adjustments and land swaps. The President is probably right that those lines formed the basis of negotiations at Camp David in 2000 under President Clinton, and that as a practical matter they might include the settlement blocs alluded to by President Bush in his letter to Ariel Sharon.
But reference to the 1967 lines as the starting point casts the shadow of illegitimacy over all Israel building beyond those lines, including in the new Jewish areas of Jerusalem, and represents a departure from UN Security Council Resolution 242. Making the 1967 lines the basis for swaps suggests that those armistice lines reflect the maximum area Israel may cover, and that compensation must be given for any area developed beyond that. The drafters of 242, however, explicitly rejected Arab language demanding a retreat from “all” the captured territories. They implicitly recognized that the retention of territory captured from an aggressor, especially when the aggressor was not an internationally recognized sovereign, could be retained, indeed had to be retained in order to create the possibility of “secure and defensible” borders for Israel. Nothing in the resolution contemplates land swaps or suggests that the 1949 armistice lines established Israel’s maximum area.
PERHAPS EVEN MORE IMPORTANT than what the President said about the 1967 lines, which sucked up most of the attention, was his treatment of Israel’s security needs. On the one hand, he committed himself to preserving Israel’s ability to “defend itself – by itself – against any threat.” That language is based on President Bush’s April 14 2004 letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. According to former National Security Council official Elliot Abrams, Sharon considered Bush’s commitment that Israel be given the means to defend itself, by itself, the most important aspect of the letter. It meant that Israel would not be asked to rely on the kindness of strangers – in the form of foreign peacekeepers – to preserve its existence.
On the other hand, the President called for the “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces” from the entire West Bank. In short, he envisions no Israeli military presence in the Jordan Rift Valley, protecting Israel’s eastern flank and guarding the border with Jordan against the invasion of weapons and terrorists from Jordan.
These two promises cannot be reconciled. Even today, the Palestinian Authority forces could not maintain their rule in the West Bank were it not for the continued presence of the IDF. They certainly could not guarantee a long and porous border, even if they were so inclined, which they are not. Thus one day before Netanyahu’s visit to America, Obama deliberately placed himself on a collision course with the Israeli prime minister, who has insisted many times on the necessity of an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Rift Valley.
AS USUAL, PRESIDENT URGED ISRAEL to take “act boldly” (modified to make “hard choices” at the AIPAC convention) for peace. And as always, the counsel was offered in a spirit of friendship – out of recognition that the status quo is “unsustainable.” Or, at least, it is unsustainable for Israel, despite its thriving democracy, vital entrepreneurial class, and powerful military. The President warned that without peace Israel would face increasing isolation, about which, it would appear, there is little that he or the United States can do.
Apparently, the status quo is not unsustainable for the supposedly downtrodden Palestinians. They were not asked to make any hard choices or take bold actions. Quite the opposite. The President argued that the issue of Palestinian refugees be put off until after borders are agreed upon. In other words, the Palestinians were not urged to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. All up-front concessions are to come from Israel.
By demanding “hard choices” only from Israel, the President in effect, if not intent, placed the onus on Israel for the failure to achieve peace. Yet there are no choices Israel could make that would further peace, absent a Palestinian renunciation of the “right of return” and the desire to reclaim Israel, something for which no Palestinian leader has ever educated his people.
The closest the President came to a criticism of the Palestinians was to label it a “legitimate question” how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government made up of Fatah and Hamas, when the latter does not recognize Israel’s right to exist. It’s a lot more than a legitimate question; it’s a question to which there is no answer. Hamas does not confine itself to refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Its charter calls for the murder of Jews (Article 7) and the destruction of Israel (Article 12). These are not political stances, but expressions of theological necessity, and as such not subject to amendment, something that those who call for Hamas to renounce terrorism or recognize Israel’s right to exist consistently ignore.
Nor is the distance between Fatah and Hamas so wide on this point. Only by comparison to Hamas does Fatah look moderate. Yet Fatah has always rejected out of hand any recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and had never indicated the slightest willingness to compromise on the right of return. Just last week the Palestinian National Assembly voted to provide monthly stipends to the terrorists held in Israeli jails – the more heinous the crimes (i.e., the longer the sentence), the higher the stipend. And the Palestinian Authority continues to name schools, summer camps, and town squares, and celebrate such arch-terrorists as Samar Kuntar, George Habash, the pioneer of air hijacking, and Dalal Mughrabi, the leader of the coastal highway massacre of 37 Israelis.
Official Palestinian Authority schoolbooks and media continue to portray the entirety of Israel as Palestine. Not surprisingly, every Palestinian poll shows a large majority rejecting anything resembling the peace outlined by Obama, which is why the Palestinians prefer unilateral declarations of Palestinian statehood over any negotiation process. It is also why no “hard choices” Israel could make would bring peace any closer.
Obama’s speech was typically long on generalities and short on specific actions that the United States might take. Rather than just admit that the Israelis have a “legitimate question” about the Fatah-Hamas pact, it would have been more reassuring to Israel to hear that the United States is cutting off funding to the Palestinian Authority, in light of its partnership with a recognized terrorist organization, i.e., Hamas.
THOUGH THE PRESIDENT’S remarks on the Palestinian-Israel conflict were offered in the context of much longer speech on the current turmoil in the Arab world, he failed to draw any of the lessons of the latter for the former. True, he did not claim, as he has done so many times before, that resolution of the Palestinian-Israel conflict is the magical key to peace and prosperity in the region.
But neither did he admit how irrelevant the Palestinian-Israel conflict is to the larger regional picture. Israel is now surrounded by three failed states. The streets of Egypt are barely policed; the writ of the Lebanese government does not extend in any fashion to the Hizbullah-controlled south (though the opposite is not the case); and in Syria, the Assad regime has no choice but to gun down civilians daily or give up power and witness the slaughter of the Alawite minority. In addition, two Iranian-proxy terrorist mini-states, sit on Israel’s northern and southern borders – Hizbullah-land to the North and Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to the South.
Syria and Egypt are dirt poor, and the large parts of the population face near starvation due to the rise in world wheat prices. An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would not enable the Syrian or Egyptian governments, or any imaginable succesors, to feed their people, nor end the endemic second-class status of women in Muslim lands, or the raise rates of literacy.
Somehow calls for Palestinian “self-determination” ring increasingly hollow in a region where the citizens of no Arab state enjoy democratic rights, particularly the right to criticize the government as they want without fear of reprisals. Only Israeli Arabs enjoy that right. Nor is the urgency of Palestinian statehood self-evident given that the Palestinians could have had a state in 1948 had they accepted partition, or in 2000 had Arafat accepted the Clinton parameters at Camp David, or again in 2009 had Mahmoud Abbas not walked away from negotiations with Prime Minister Olmert. Palestinian claims pale compared to those of Kurds and Tibetans, two linguistically distinct people with ancient histories.
A Palestinian state would inevitably be a failed state. About one thing Fatah and Hamas agree: Neither want technocrat Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayaad nor anyone like him running the show. Their goal is not building a state but claiming another. Three years ago, Fatah and Hamas forces were busy throwing one another off of roofs, and they would soon be back at it. Whatever state came into being would not exercise a monopoly on weapons within its borders. Nor would it be able to secure those borders from the infiltration of arms and terrorists.
Failed states provide the haven that terrorist organizations need. And those organizations would flock to a newly created Palestine, especially if, as envisioned by Obama, Israeli security control were absent. Rather than serving as the beacon of peace described by President Obama such a state would be the trip-wire for all-out Middle East war.
This article first appeared in Yated Ne’eman, May 25.