Mortimer B. Zuckerman
Approach to the Arab-Israel impasse has a lamentable consistency
When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accepted an invitation to speak to a joint meeting of Congress, he could have had no idea that the Obama administration would attempt to take the ground from under him. A preemptive strike is about the only interpretation one can make of yet another Middle East speech by the president -- a speech that represented a fundamental change in American policy toward Israel going back 44 years.
The president advocated that the borders before the Six-Day War should be a starting point for negotiations. That would mean Israel yielding all the land won in the war, including the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. If Israel wanted to keep land settled since the war, it could do so only by swapping it for parcels of land in pre-1967 Israel.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, passed in November 1967, is the foundational document of postwar diplomacy in the Middle East. Its withdrawal clause deliberately did not demand or insist that Israel pull back completely to the lines before the 1967 war, but only called on Israel to withdraw from "territories," not from "all the territories" or from "the territories," a deliberate distinction. Furthermore, Israel was to withdraw to secure and recognized borders. That has always been interpreted as not being synonymous with the pre-1967 boundaries.
Resolution 242 has served as the reference for Arab-Israeli peace agreements including the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and the 1993 Oslo agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn. Neither of them stipulated that the final borders between Israel and the Palestinians would be the 1967 lines but only that these borders were to be a subject for future negotiations.
As Glenn Kessler pointed out in his Fact Checker blog at the Washington Post, this was supported by what President Lyndon Johnson said in 1968: "It is clear, however, that a return to the situation of 4 June 1967 will not bring peace. There must be secure and there must be recognized borders." President Ronald Reagan said in September 1982: "In the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely 10 miles wide at its narrowest point. The bulk of Israel's population lived within artillery range of hostile Arab armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again." And his secretary of state, George Shultz, was equally unequivocal in September 1988: "Israel will never negotiate from or return to the 1967 borders." Citations from Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made the same point.
Moreover, when Israel took the risk of leaving Gaza in 2005, Bush assured the Israelis that the United States would not expect Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders and that Israeli settlements would be reflected in Israel's right to secure, recognizable, and defensible borders. Both houses of Congress approved these assurances, which had been matched in letters by U.S. secretaries of state from Henry Kissinger to Warren Christopher. President Obama himself, when he was campaigning and appealing to the Jewish community, stated that any future agreement would reflect Israel's right to "secure, recognized, and defensible borders" -- the term of art for not returning to the indefensible prewar lines.
These vital commitments now seem to be in the process of disavowal by the Obama administration, whose secretary of state went so far as to assert that President Bush's pledges did not become part of the official U.S. position.
One other consequence of the president's position is that the parties must negotiate a border that is different from 1967. Since the 1967 line runs through Jerusalem, it would mean that the Western Wall and even Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter are Palestinian -- alien territory for which Israel must now negotiate.Furthermore, Obama's speech undermines the prospects of a negotiation. It removes the principal Israeli negotiating chip. The Israelis would have to persuade the Palestinians to accept Israel as a Jewish state and understand that the refugees whom the Arabs have made no effort to accommodate cannot be given a "right of return," which would swamp Israel. Indeed, Obama failed to include previous U.S. statements that the Palestinians will never see the right of return implemented through a return to Israel proper. It's an omission that leaves it open for Palestinians to pocket as a concession without having to withdraw their demand for a right of return for millions of Palestinians.
There is a certain lamentable consistency to Obama's handling of the Israeli-Arab impasse.
Two years ago he inserted settlements as the center of his Middle East strategy, which hamstrung the possibility of successful talks. His call for a freeze turned settlements from a dignified wish into a threshold demand that needed to be met in full. This made it impossible for the Palestinians to compromise, for as President Mahmoud Abbas stated, he could not be less Palestinian than the American president.
Now again, Obama has stymied talks by asking Israelis to give up their main negotiating card, without demanding that the Palestinians provide anything in return. No request to return to negotiations. No meeting. No envoy. No "quartet" session. That is simply a non-starter in a Middle East culture where you never give anything for nothing. The president has made it virtually impossible for the Palestinian leader to make the necessary compromises. Instead he was rewarding the Palestinians just weeks after they announced a reconciliation with Hamas, and amid talk that Abbas would wage a declaration of political war against Israel by asking the United Nations to recognize Palestine as a state. That would be a breach of the Palestine Liberation Organization's commitment in the Oslo agreement that "neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of permanent status negotiations."
The crux of the matter is what happened after the 1993 Oslo Accords.
The Israelis had to endure a campaign of indiscriminate murder by hundreds of Palestinian suicide bombers who, with Arafat's complicity, crossed over from the West Bank to kill Israelis.
Since then another menacing element has emerged to make a mockery of the pledges of Oslo. Abbas for the PLO has agreed to a joint venture with Hamas in the government of the West Bank. Hamas is a proxy of Iran. The Hamas charter calls for the murder of every Jew and for Israel's destruction. Their chief, Khalid Meshal, has said that Hamas would never recognize Israel's right to exist nor abandon liberating all of Palestine. Yet Abbas, in commenting on Netanyahu's congressional speech, said: "Our goal is not to isolate Israel nor to challenge its legitimacy."
How can he even think of saying that when he has partnered with Hamas? Obama did at least acknowledge that it would be impossible for Israel to negotiate seriously with a party that includes Hamas. Nobody has thought what to do with Hamas if it is to have access to the billions of dollars of aid from the United States and Europe now given to the Palestinians, much of which would buy more rockets and other weaponry.
The 1967 borders, which gave Israel a width of about nine miles, half the diameter of the Washington beltway, were not boundaries of peace. They were boundaries of repeated wars, and the Israelis will simply not return to them, especially now that Abbas's party, Fatah, has joined with Hamas. Israelis will not forget that the last time Abbas received control of an area, namely Gaza, his forces ran away and left it to Hamas, which rained thousands of rockets on Israel. The risk is that the West Bank, with Hamas in control, will become yet another base for terrorism with access to the overlooks of the Jerusalem suburbs, Tel Aviv beaches, and the main airport.
Today Israeli counter-terrorism forces can reach every place in the West Bank, capture prohibited weapons, or intercept suicide bombers, an access that gives them high-quality, precise military intelligence along with the full freedom of operation to enter Palestinian city centers and villages to locate and destroy bomb-producing factories and terrorist cells. Palestinian-Israeli counter-terrorism coordination has made the West Bank secure (and it's prospering). That cannot be sustained if Hamas is in the government, since most of the terrorists are Hamas people.
Were the West Bank to become a failed Palestinian state, it would threaten the very viability of Israel. The high ridge line of the West Bank overlooks so much of the heartland of Israel that even a Palestinian teenager with the most simple weaponry such as a portable Qassam rocket could hit Israel's main airport and major cities. This land is a mere eight to 12 miles from the Mediterranean -- a lethal proximity Europeans and Americans cannot fully appreciate unless they have been there.
For its part, Israel also remembers what happened when it withdrew from Lebanon. The world community, having pressed for that, immediately lost interest, but while its eyes were closed, Hezbollah took over, re-armed, and accumulated more than 60,000 rockets and missiles. U.N. forces fled their positions as soon as internal fighting heated up, and monitors themselves fell victim to local Palestinian kidnapping. So Israel cannot rely on international forces to keep the peace. Abba Eban had it right about international forces in the Middle East when he compared them to an umbrella that is folded up when it rains. That is why an Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley is critical to prevent terrorists and weapons coming in through Jordan. That is why Obama's implied opposition to an open-ended Israeli presence along the Jordan River would present yet another security issue.
What the Israelis know and understand and what the rest of the world doesn't is that the Palestinian discourse in Arabic is much more hostile than what the English-speaking world hears. The Palestinian propaganda in all the controlled media and in the schools portrays Israel as an illegitimate invader that must be destroyed. Just a few weeks ago, a member of the Palestinian parliament, Yunis al-Astal, spoke out on Hamas Al-Aqsa TV and asserted that the Jews being brought to Palestine is a divine plan that will give the Arabs the honor of annihilating them. Every day terrorists are honored as devoted brothers and sisters, even the late cleric Muhammad Fadlallah, seen by some as the mastermind of the 1983 Hezbollah bombing that claimed the lives of 241 U.S. servicemen in Lebanon.
A campaign to delegitimize Israel is waged every day along with incitement to violence. A Pew poll showed that 68 percent of Palestinian Muslims support suicide bombing. Polls also suggest that 85 percent of the Palestinians don't want peace if it means any compromise on borders, settlements, or Jerusalem, or any restraints on their wishes to move into Israel proper, what they call the right of return. The Palestinians and Syrians who rushed Israel's borders recently were not "protesters"; they did not come to negotiate. They assaulted Israel's borders on the anniversary of Israel's founding in 1948. They came to destroy, and more such mass efforts are being planned.
The Israeli position is misrepresented throughout the Middle East and to a large extent in Europe. Prime Minister Netanyahu is not the "no" robot of the anti-Israel propaganda. He has demonstrated his willingness to take risks for peace. He overcame the resistance of his Likud party to a two-state solution; he agreed to a temporary 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction, which no previous government was even willing to consider; he authorized the release of dozens of Palestinian prisoners; he dramatically reduced checkpoints and blockades in the West Bank even though this would increase the security risk to Israelis; he gave free passes without further review to hundreds of Palestinians to move between Israel and the West Bank for economic reasons; and he authorized new security arrangements that were in effect a modified form of amnesty to help former terrorists join the Palestinians as peaceful civilians.
In his most recent speech to the Knesset, he made it clear that Israel would insist on retaining the large settlement blocks near the 1967 borders -- the position of every prime minister going back to Yitzhak Rabin -- but by inference he excluded the smaller isolated settlements. In his speech to Congress, he stated he would be very generous with respect to territory. His proposal for a military presence along the Jordan River did not include seeking to retain settlements there. As he told Congress, he is prepared to cede territory that is at the heart of the Jewish nation, territory legitimately won in a war of defense against Arab attempts to destroy Israel. Quite simply, in Israeli domestic politics, Netanyahu has drawn a clear line between his position and the security-minded conservatives led by Likud, and the more hard-line religious right of the settlement movement that rejects territorial compromise under any circumstances.
Israel still retains the burden of putting forth its own peace initiative. But it will hardly feel encouraged to do that without the certain knowledge and confidence that the United States remains its main ally, not just in words but in deeds.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was right in a speech he gave last week after the Obama address. "The place where negotiating will happen," he said, "must be the negotiating table -- and nowhere else. Those negotiations will not happen, and their terms will not be set, through speeches, or in the streets, or in the media. No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building, or about anything else."
He added: "A fair beginning to good-faith talks means that Israel cannot be asked to agree to confines that would compromise its own security." Amen to all of that!
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