Most of Obama’s speech was dedicated to the Middle Eastern upheaval, with only a small part devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet the issue of the 1967 borders ended up making headlines. This was an ironic outcome, as the speech slammed the Arabs’ obsession with the Israeli conflict, which prevented economic, social and political progress. Regrettably, Obama did precisely the same thing, and the attention he dedicated to the conflict overshadowed everything else.
The tempest that followed the mention of the borders issue is a result of emphasis rather than essence. American administrations always espoused a solution that will include a withdrawal to the 1967 borders, with minor modifications required for security reasons. This is also commensurate with Security Council Resolution 242, which the US initiated and drafted following the 1967 Six-Day War. In 2004, President George W. Bush declared that realities on the ground must be recognized; that is, large settlement blocs should be recognized. Obama repeated the historic US position but omitted Bush’s addition, thereby creating the impression that he was only speaking of a return to the 1967 borders.
Obama placed security and borders at the top of the agenda: The borders issue is among the most important for the Palestinians, while security is of utmost importance for Israel. For Obama, agreeing on borders would allow for regular Israeli construction in the territories to be handed over to Israel. However, Netanyahu is interested in starting with the heavier issues of Jerusalem, refugees and accepting Israel as a Jewish state, which the PM believes dictate all the other issues.
Speech to have little effect
In his speech, Obama attempted to work out a balanced American plan for resuming talks between Israel and the Palestinians. He included principles that the Palestinians insist on, such as the need to end the occupation, a withdrawal to the 1967 borders (with agreed swaps) and starting negotiations with the borders issue. He also included principles that Israel insists on: The need to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, demilitarizing the Palestinian state and objection to unilateral steps, such as a UN declaration of Palestinian statehood.
This is not a new approach and it characterized similar American efforts in the past. The problem is that the sides are only examining the principles that bother them and ignore the ones that are good for them. The result is that all parties reject the seemingly balanced package.
It is doubtful whether Obama’s speech and his meeting with Netanyahu will have a substantive effect on the resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians or on US-Israel ties. In the past two years, the Palestinians proved that they have no interest whatsoever in negotiations and adopted a circumventing strategy: UN recognition of a Palestinian state in line with the 1967 borders.
In his speech, Obama rejected this move out of hand, yet did not say what the US wants to or can do to prevent it. Obama also said that the unity deal between Hamas and Fatah hinders the resumption of talks, but did not make it clear how this can be overcome should Hamas, as expected, fail to change its strategic positions, which reject Israel’s right to exist and oppose peace talks.
And at the end of the day, Israel and the US maintain a solid system of strategic interests that is stronger than any president or prime minister.
Professor Eytan Gilboa is an expert on US affairs, heads the Center for International Communication, senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University
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