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President Obama's Speech to the State Department

Ronald Radosh

President Obama has just finished his speech at the State Department. Much of it, particularly the sections regarding democratization and the Arab dictators whose regimes have begun to fail, echoes in many ways the very policies of the Bush administration — which the Democrats and Obama supporters disparaged and ridiculed when George W. Bush was in power. Indeed, it seems in some ways to be a rejection of his own Cairo speech, in so much as he said that for many of the Arab states, attacking Israel was the only way that Arab rulers could allow their populations to express themselves.

Yet, the bombshell in the speech is the following:

So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, and 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. 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 potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

What the president has said is essentially that rather than borders and boundaries being established as an end result of negotiations, the two states that will be created should be based on the 1967 lines, a conclusion that gives the Palestinian Authority its own desired boundaries — and takes away from Israel the necessary buffer zone it gained after the 1967 war, and from which it has been able to prevent attacks on its own people.

It is akin to the policy in which the Obama administration focused on their demand that Israel give up settlements, leading Fatah and Abbas to adopt a position that, until then, they were willing to negotiate. Ultimately, it put them in a corner from which they could not back down.

Moreover, the newly developed Hamas-Fatah “unity government” agreement has already made it clear that the Palestinian leadership will not honor the requirement that the existence of a Jewish state in the region must be accepted. As the president put it, “how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” Not only have the PA leadership not provided “a credible answer to that question,” they have in effect done the exact opposite — made it clear that they will never do what is required.

In effect, the president is rewarding Abbas for his bad behavior, after the PA leader’s own recent op-ed in The New York Times in which he revealed his intransigence. Statehood, as he perceives it, is not an end in itself, but is put forth as the new means for waging a continuing war against Israel. That is why Jackson Diehl’s article in The Washington Post is so important. Diehl points out: “Desperate to jump-start an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Obama administration and its European allies are piling pressure on Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, demanding that he offer a plan, concessions — something — that will provide the basis for starting negotiations with Palestinians.”

Diehl notes that Netanyahu made it clear last week when he announced a willingness to cede much of the West Bank to a new Palestinian state, a major concession. Yet, in contrast, Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the “moderate” wing of the Palestinian movement, “is not only refusing to make any concessions of his own but is also turning his back on American diplomacy — and methodically setting the stage for another Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” His new agreement with Hamas will require him to do exactly the opposite of steps that could lead to peace, including firing the Palestinian PM, releasing Hamas militants from jail, and equipping the new security forces with arms from Iran. Moreover, he is committed to seeking a U.N. General Assembly vote on a Palestinian state which even President Obama called in his speech today a “symbolic” action that is meant to isolate Israel and “won’t create an independent state.”

Abbas means, as he wrote in his op-ed, that he wants to pursue claims against Israel at the U.N., before human rights groups bring Israel to the International Court of Justice — all a path for sanctions against the Jewish state. He favors not a peace treaty leading to statehood, but statehood first and then negotiations, including the acceptance of the so-called “right of return.” Of course, as Diehl writes about the Palestinians, their “return to Israel would mean its demise.” In other words, the very deligitimazation of Israel that our president said today must come to an end would be realized.

So when the president starts by announcing his support for the Palestinians’ favored borders in advance of negotiations, he is actually, as Diehl writes, saying that his policy is: “Now we really have to put the screws to Netanyahu.” And he also, in effect, tells American Jews that “Abbas is ready to make peace,” which of course he is not — and this leads to the false conclusion that “Netanyahu is the problem.”

As Diehl concludes:

The record of the past several years suggests something very different. In 2008, Abbas refused to accept a far-reaching peace offer from Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, even as a basis for discussion; nor would he make a counteroffer. “The gaps were wide,” he later told me in an interview. For two years he has stoutly resisted peace talks with Netanyahu, even while conceding that the nominal reason for his intransigence — Israel’s refusal to freeze settlements — was forced on him by Obama.

Abbas’s goal, of trying to transform the Arab Spring into a new mass movement against Israel, is not what President Obama seems to think the outcome of the awakening in the Middle East will lead to. Only one side — that of Fatah and Hamas — is refusing to make the kind of concessions that will lead to peace. This is why the president’s outrageous endorsement of the ’67 borders only emboldens Abbas in his intransigence, and harms the ability of Netanyahu to make necessary concessions for peace.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi wrote that in his speech to the Knesset last week, Netanyahu ended the ideological impasse in Israel about whether or not there should be a two-state solution, and thus positioned “his Likud Party within the centrist majority that seeks to end the occupation of the Palestinians but is wary of the security consequences. There is no longer any major Israeli party that rejects a West Bank withdrawal on ideological grounds. Instead, the debate is now focused where most Israelis want it to be: on how to ensure that a Palestinian state won’t pose an existential threat to their country.”

To obtain support for this far-reaching concession, “Israel, he said, would insist on retaining the large settlement blocs near the 1967 border — and not, therefore, the smaller, isolated settlements outside the blocs. Israel, he added, would also insist on a military presence in the Jordan Valley — and not, therefore, on retaining settlements there.” Obama’s insistence on the ’67 borders, of course, interferes with precisely this decision of Netanyahu. Halevi writes:

None of this is likely to happen anytime soon. Mr. Netanyahu’s concessions aren’t enough to meet minimal Palestinian demands — and for now at least that hardly matters. Conditions for a resumption of negotiations, let alone for an agreement, couldn’t be worse. With the genocidal Hamas now aligned with the Palestinian Authority, and with PA head Mahmoud Abbas insisting on some form of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, not even Israel’s opposition party, Kadima, would be able to reach a deal.

True, and that is why President Obama’s speech, despite its florid vision of two peoples living in peace, is so dangerous. The president spoke as if it is Israel, and not Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, who is the obstacle to his desired two-state solution. Hence, if the Arab-Israeli conflict is not to “cast a shadow over the region” anymore, that means there should be a U.S. policy that puts pressure where it should be put — on the Palestinian Authority and not on Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel, as Halevi puts it, will cede the right of return of Jews to a greater Israel in return for Palestinians ceding the right of return of their refugees to greater Palestine. The pragmatic hawks in power in Israel today are willing to do this; the ideological extremists of Hamas and the PA are not. Netanyahu is indeed willing to cede land for peace; the Palestinians seem instead to be ready for all-out war against Israel in defense of gaining all of old Palestine for themselves.

As we prepare to listen to President Obama’s forthcoming speech to AIPAC this coming Sunday morning, do not expect a massive ovation and cheers for the president from what is likely to be a a most skeptical and demanding audience.

Update: Netanyahu expects Obama to “take back” the 1967 rhetoric, while Knesset members brand Obama the “new Arafat.”

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