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Update – 24 May 2011

Posted by Emily Gian on 24 May 2011 at 12:07pm:

Dear All,

Last week I talked about literature and fiction and this week I turn to history.

Last Thursday, US President Barack Obama presented a speech on the Middle East and North Africa. So much has been written about what Obama said in relation to the Israelis and the Palestinians and of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response that I thought it might be a worthwhile exercise to go back to the basics.

The main issue of contention is President Obama’s reference to what the future borders of the two-states might look like. He declared:
“So while the core issue of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”

Many in the Israeli sector were up in arms about the reference to the “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps”. The fact of the matter is, the statement put forward nothing that has not been said before. The pre-1967 borders that Obama referred to are in fact the 1949 Armistice Lines, agreements signed between Israel and Egypt, Israel and Lebanon, Israel and Transjordan and Israel and Syria following the 1948-1949 war. These lines were always intended to be temporary, to be replaced with permanent borders after negotiations. It should be noted that in 1949, the Armistice lines gave the West Bank to Jordan and Gaza to Egypt, and between then and 1967, the Palestinians were living under either Jordanian or Egyptian occupation.

On last night’s Lateline on ABC, Former US Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, pointed out that other US leaders had talked about pre-1967 lines, they had just not referred to them explicitly in that way. He used Secretary of US State Bill Rogers (1969), President Bill Clinton and President George Bush as three examples (see more).

President Obama’s vital error came later in his speech when he declared, “I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving 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, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians” (see more).  

The future of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees have been two of the biggest sticking points in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. One cannot resolve the issue of territory without resolving these two other issues. Obama’s demand that Israel negotiate final borders without the Palestinians giving up the right of return, which potentially could create another state with a Palestinian majority and would therefore take away Israel’s essence of a Jewish and democratic state, is absurd.

Alan Dershowitz declares that “Obama’s mistake was to insist that Israel give up its card without demanding that the Palestinians give up theirs” (see more). He also points out that earlier in President Obama’s administration he made the mistake of demanding that Israel must freeze all settlement activity. Before that time, the Palestinians had not been calling for that, but following that, the Palestinian negotiators set this as a precondition which ultimately has lead to a complete breakdown in peace negotiations.

The reference to pre-1967 borders has now opened up Palestinian leadership to insist that negotiations cannot resume unless Israel unequivocally accepts these conditions. Indeed, the chief Palestinian negotiator (in between periods where his resignation is being considered by the PA) Saeb Erekat, declared that peace talks “actually aim at realising this [Obama’s] objective, the establishment of the independent Palestinian state with these borders, along with the swap of territories”. He continued, “Now, we would like to hear from Netanyahu about his stance regarding this principle, declared by President Obama” (see more).

Ari Shavit of Haaretz also argues that while President Obama’s speech was good for Israel on many levels, his speech was bad for peace by making the 1967 lines the starting point and not the endpoint. He writes, “without intending any harm, Obama presented Israel with a suicidal proposition: an interim agreement based on the 1967 borders. It’s a proposal that runs along the same lines as the Hamas offer of a hudna – a long-term cease-fire. It’s a proposal that will result in certain conflict in Jerusalem and the inundation of Israel with refugees. It’s a proposition that spells and end to peace, an end to stability and an end to the State of Israel” (see more).

Shavit’s reference to Hamas provides an interesting segue into Hamas’ response to Obama’s speech.

Firstly, though I should make mention of the significant points President Obama made about Hamas in his speech. He declared, “for the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel with end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection”.

In reference to the unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas he declared, “How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognise your right to exist? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse”.

The first condition of the Quartet’s Roadmap in 2003 was that ‘Palestinian leadership issues unequivocal statement reiterating Israel’s right to exist in peace and security and calling for an immediate an unconditional ceasefire to end armed activity and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere. All official Palestinian institutions end incitement against Israel’ (see more). Of course, neither the PA nor Hamas have observed this requirement and nor do most world leaders seem to care.

Now, at a time when one would think Hamas would be interested in proving the legitimacy of their new unity agreement with Fatah, Hamas has actually been hitting out at President Obama’s speech. Hamas spokesman Sarni Abu Zuhri declared that the US government “will fail” in forcing Hamas to “recognise the occupation” (see more). Much of the media remains silent on Hamas’ hostile reaction to the speech, preferring to focus their attention on Netanyahu.

Moreover, Hamas cannot help but show its true colours and true aspirations for a Palestinian state that exists instead of Israel and not alongside her. Another Hamas spokesman Mahmoud al-Zahar stated, “Clearly Obama’s plan is no different, aside from a few small details, from that of George Bush. Now he refers to the 1967 borders as sacred, but who says we accept them, and that we won’t speak of the ’48 lines?” (see more) Unfortunately, al-Zahar and his friends want to change or ignore history. Because the very same body that the Palestinians want to go to in September to declare an independent state, the United Nations, voted in 1947 to partition Mandatory Palestine. The Arabs rejected this and chose to go to war to destroy Israel.

Following President Obama’s speech last Thursday, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama met in Washington, in what many commentators were calling a frosty meeting.

There, Prime Minister Netanyahu outlined why the reference to pre-1967 lines may be problematic stating that “these lines are indefensible; because they don’t take into account certain changes that have taken place on the ground, demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years” (see more).

Two days later, President Obama spoke at an AIPAC conference where he reiterated what he said on Thursday in his speech and on Friday with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Stating that he believes that “real friends talk openly and honestly with one another”, he did stress that “peace cannot be imposed on the parties in the conflict. No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state. And the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the United Nations or in any international forum. Israel’s legitimacy is not a matter for debate… Moreover, we know that peace demands a partner – which is why I said that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognise its right to exist. And we will hold Palestinians accountable for their actions and for their rhetoric” (see more).

The ball is now in Netanyahu’s court as we wait to hear what he said at AIPAC overnight (reports so far can be found here and here) and what he will say when he addresses the US Congress today.

In the meantime, please read again over the rest of Obama’s speech, in particular to what he said about the Arab revolutions. Much of what he said will inevitably be ignored by the likes of Assad and Ghaddafi anyway – unfortunately, it has been overshadowed by what the President said about Israel and the Palestinians and, as a consequence, more of their people have died in the interim with much of the world learning nothing about their tragic circumstances.

Best wishes,

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