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Israel's challenge to abandon status quo

President Barack Obama has spelled out his prescription for the partition of Palestine. "The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines," he says, "with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states."

That is not a departure from long-established American policy. The 1967 lines dividing Israel from the West Bank and from Gaza — once spurned by Israel's Abba Eban as "Auschwitz borders" — have always implicitly been Washington's point of departure for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But now, for the first time, the four digits have become formal American policy.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister and Obama's guest at the White House Friday, has never accepted the principle that the Palestinian state should get 100 percent of the land taken by Israel in 1967. (Netanyahu's ostensible acceptance of the principle of a Palestinian state itself is so ringed about with riders and conditions that critics at home and elsewhere question its sincerity.) At their meeting, Netanyahu told Obama Israel is willing to make compromises for peace but flatly rejected the idea of going back to 1967 borders, which he described as indefensible.

Beyond the mention of 1967 and other detailed specifics earnestly being parsed by the experts, Obama's speech was striking in that it deliberately embraced and articulated the key contentions advanced by the Israeli peace camp, now in opposition to the Netanyahu government. "The status quo is unsustainable. … The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River," the president said, sounding the "demographic warning" that Israeli moderates frequently cite as compelling grounds to end the occupation. "The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation."

Obama said he spoke out of firm commitment to Israel. "But precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth." Also significant beyond the specifics was the president's decision to embed this renewed effort to spur the Israel-Palestine process forward in the broader context of the "Arab spring." His speech surveyed the turbulent current events sweeping the region, country by country, and pledged that America would promote and support movements for reform. "After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be."

He placed Israel-Palestine squarely within that context, implicitly rejecting Netanyahu's belief that the regional turmoil must dictate even more caution and conservatism on Israel's part. Among the specifics that Netanyahu will not have appreciated is the call for a "full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces." Netanyahu wants Israeli troops to stay deployed along the Jordan River indefinitely.

Netanyahu said it was all very well for Obama to recognize Israel as the Jewish people's homeland, but he wanted to hear it from the Palestinians. He also wanted the president to rehearse the specific undertakings to Israel offered by President George W. Bush in 2004: that Israel would not be required to withdraw to the 1967 line, that the large settlement blocks would be annexed to Israel and that the Palestinian refugees would not return to the Jewish state. Arguably, those positions — which, ironically, Netanyahu dismissed at the time, as they were pledged to his political foe, Ariel Sharon — are enfolded within Obama's reference to "swaps."

The president had strong medicine for the Palestinian side too. He spoke against their intention to seek a declaration of statehood at the U.N. "Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state," he declared. And he warned there would be no peace "if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection." The recent reconciliation agreement between the Fatah, led by Mahmoud Abbas, which rules on the West Bank, and the Islamist Hamas which rules over Gaza raised "profound and legitimate questions" for Israel, the president acknowledged. He demanded of the Palestinian leadership "credible answers." Obama seemed to offer new thinking on the way to resume long-stalled negotiations. Tackle territory and security first, he proposed, leaving the other two "wrenching and emotional" core issues of conflict — Jerusalem and refugees — for a later stage. "(M)oving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair."

An optimistic tone rarely heard of late in the increasingly tense, increasing bleak arena of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Does the president's speech presage a newly energetic sally by the administration into this thankless, daunting battlefield?

© 2011 The Economist

Israel's challenge to abandon status quo 05/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 20, 2011 5:23pm]
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