This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 06/06/2011
Last week US President Barack Obama reiterated and clarified his earlier statement endorsing the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiated permanent borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted furiously to the statement and promptly rejected the idea saying that the 1967 borders were indefensible, and vowed that a Palestinian state would not be founded “at Israel’s expense”.
What is remarkable is that the president of the most powerful country in the world, and the principle benefactor of Israel, felt sufficiently shaken by the blistering attack, to judge it necessary to clarify and cause to be clarified his statement endorsing the 1967 borders.
On ABC’s This Week news programme, George Mitchell, former Middle East envoy said: “The president didn’t say that Israel has to go back to the 1967 borders. He said with agreed swaps.”
Also last week, Obama’s former chief of staff and current Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, probably after consulting with his former boss, wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post assuaging Israeli fears.
Emanuel affirmed that the Obama administration did not expect Israel to accept the 1967 borders, but that rather it viewed them as the basis for negotiating border lines that included land swaps.
Emanuel, himself a Zionist who held an Israeli passport and served in the Israeli army during the 1991 Gulf War, concluded with a strong testimony to Obama’s credentials as an unwaveringly strong supporter of Israel’s security: “The president I know and worked for,” he wrote, “is deeply committed to the peace and security of a Jewish state of Israel.”
Obama himself offered his own explanation of what he said. The venue for the president’s clarification of his position was the annual conference of the leading pro-Israel lobby in the United States, Aipac (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). President Obama restated his position that Israel-Palestine peace negotiations must acknowledge the 1967 borders as a starting point.
Addressing the Israeli concern expressed by Netanyahu that the 1967 borders were not defensible borders, Obama reiterated that the US commitment to Israel’s security is “ironclad”.
An outraged Mike Huckabee, a Republican presidential aspirant, accused Obama of betraying Israel. “Tim Pawlenty, a fellow Republican presidential aspirant, described Obama’s endorsement of the 1967 borders as “a ... very dangerous demand”, when, in fact, Obama does not expect, much less demand, that the Israelis withdraw to the 1967 borders.
In a statement furiously rejecting Obama’s endorsement of the 1967 borders, Netanyahu had the audacity to practically order the US president to abandon the 1967 borders and stated that he “expects to hear from President Obama reconfirmation of commitments to Israel from 2004.”
The 2004 letter written by president George W. Bush to then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, states a similar position to the one endorsed by Obama: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centres, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines ...”
There are a number of reasons why the Obama statement has met with hostility from the Netanyahu’s right wing coalition government, and its supporters in the United States.
Netanyahu prefers the blunt ideological bias of the Bush letter which not only prejudges the outcome of the negotiations but also clearly bases the negotiations, not on international law, but also on the principle of might over right — which clearly favours Israel.
The Bush letter takes a more decisive approach on the side of Israel by excluding as unrealistic a return to the 1967 borders. This is tantamount to admitting the legality of the acquisition of territories by force — a principle clearly in violation of international law norms.
It is also a principle that has been clearly rejected by the UN Security Council in Resolution 242 (1967) which stated in the preamble “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territories by force”.
The Obama approach, although not novel nor ground-breaking, nonetheless represents a subtle retreat from the bluntly pro-Israeli approach of Bush. It does not demand a return to the 1967 borders but it does not exclude it either and in that sense it does not prejudge the outcome of the negotiations which is left to the parties to agree on. But we know already from the leaked Palestinian Papers the desperate predicament of the Palestinian leadership that has failed to extract from Israel any significant concessions.
Notwithstanding Palestinian collaboration with Israeli leaders, complying with Israeli demands for security; accepting the Oslo Accords only to find them torpedoed by Israel (and in particular by a boastful Netanyahu); accepting the road map only to find the sponsors of the road map (United States, Russia, European Union and United Nations) including Washington itself unable to get a promise from the Israelis to freeze, let alone to stop, colonies in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Although the Obama approach is less aggressively pro-Israel than Bush’ approach, it nonetheless leaves the parties to negotiate, not on the basis of international law and various UN resolutions, but purely on the basis of the parties’ respective power. And since the balance of power is grossly in favour of the Israelis, the Palestinian leadership is likely to find itself in yet another take it or leave it situation. Obama could have seriously addressed this issue and provided a framework for negotiations based on principles of international law, UN resolutions, and previously agreed upon issues; but he did not. His lofty rhetoric will not be matched by concrete actions if this means a showdown with the Israeli government or with its agents in America; after all he faces re-election next year.
He knows that Israel and its lobby in the US do not want the principles of justice and law to guide the search of peace; they want the faits accomplis, the facts on the ground to drive the negotiations. And the facts on the ground speak for themselves: One party is an occupier the other is occupied; one party is armed to the teeth and does not hesitate to periodically inflict untold violence on the other subjugated party; one party is actively engaged in expropriating the land of the other party — helpless in the face of dispossession.
Another crucial fact is that these realities on the ground that perpetuate violence, injustice, and dispossession, are subsidised by the most generous aid package the United States gives to any country
If that is the case why the outrage at Obama’s endorsement of the 1967 borders as a basis of negotiations?
The mere perception of the subtlest change in policy is enough to trigger confrontation. In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the 1967 borders as a “Palestinian goal”. Now Obama seems to have endorsed this “Palestinian” goal. In fact, calling the 1967 borderss a Palestinian goal is not accurate; it is a basis for negotiations endorsed by the international community and recognised by various previous US administrations.
Moreover, an Israeli return to the 1967 borders would mean withdrawal from occupied East Jerusalem which was conquered by force in June 1967, later annexed to Israel but such annexation was specifically denounced by the UN and the international community. But then again, the Obama approach does not expect Israel to withdraw to the June 1967 borders. It is now clear that Obama’s commitment to Israel is different from Bush’s only in style, not substance.
Adel Safty is Distinguished Professor Adjunct at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His new book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky, and published in England by Garnet, 2009.