I am posting this on behalf of its author, Meretz USA board member, Dr.. Robert O. Freedman, whose full byline can be found below.
One of the most unfortunate aspects of the response to President Obama’s recently announced plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, has been the unthinking reactions to it. A careful reading of the Obama speech at the US State Department on May 19th would reveal that it was very sympathetic to Israel. Yet the misinterpretation of his call for a peace settlement to be based on the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed land swaps, has cast a shadow on his efforts to restart the long-stalled Israeli Palestinian peace talks.
The first error made by those who criticized the Obama speech—from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Republican lawmakers seeking to make Israel a wedge issue in the 2012 Presidential campaign—was to assert that President Obama was trying to force Israel back to the 1967 borders. Netanyahu claimed that the 1967 borders were “indefensible” , Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney said Obama was “throwing Israel under the bus”, and some right-wing Israelis and their supporters in the United States carried the argument further, asserting that President Obama was seeking to force Israel back to “Auschwitz borders”. All of this, of course, is nonsense.
First of all, by speaking about “mutually agreed land swaps”—something he reemphasized in his talk to the AIPAC Conference several days later—President Obama was demonstrating that he was aware of Israel’s security problems and that the future border of Israel would have to take into account Israel’s security needs. He made this explicit in his State Department speech, by asserting that in any border agreement security arrangements would have to be robust enough to (1) “prevent a resurgence of terrorism”, (2) stop the infiltration of weapons” and (3)” provide border security”. Given Israel’s negative experience after its withdrawals from Southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005, Israel’s primary concern about returning territory is that the territory given up could be used to establish bases for the firing of missiles against key Israeli population centers such as Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, as well as against Ben-Gurion airport, IDF mobilization centers, and Israeli military airports , to mention only a few possible targets. Secondarily Israelis fear a return of the terrorist infiltration from the West Bank that plagued the country from 2000-2004. In his comments, President Obama showed sensitivity to both of the Israeli concerns. .Indeed, he demonstrated his empathy with the Israelis by noting that he understood their “living in fear that their children could be blown up in a bus, or by rockets fired at their homes” , and he explicitly stated that the proposed Palestinian state would have to be “non-militarized”. Furthermore, he also said that Israel would have to have “secure and recognized borders”, and that no Israeli withdrawals could be expected until the effectiveness of Palestinian security arrangements would be demonstrated.
A second criticism of the Obama speech was that it did not forcefully oppose the return of Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel. Indeed, Obama’s critics claimed that he was inviting masses of refugees to return to Israel so that the Jewish nature of Israel would come into question. Once again, the critics have misread President Obama’s speech. The President was explicit in calling for “two states for two peoples”, with Israel as “a Jewish State and the homeland for the Jewish people”. While he called for dealing with security and border issues first, and the “emotional” issues of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees afterwards, this was in no way an invitation for masses of Palestinian refugees to pour into Israel.
Critics of the President’s speech also overlooked his denunciation of Palestinian and other attempts to delegitimize Israel, as well as his strongly expressed opposition to the Palestinian plan to seek a UN declaration of a Palestinian State in September, instead of negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Such critics also chose to ignore President Obama’s clearly expressed understanding of Israel’s unwillingness to negotiate with a Fatah-Hamas unity government until Hamas recognized Israel’s right to exist.
Given the very sympathetic treatment of Israel in President Obama’s speech, why the vehemence of the reaction to it? One has to assume that those opposing the Obama peace strategy are unwilling to give up any territory on the West Bank—while Netanyahu spoke of “painful concessions”, he was very vague in his comments—and such opponents are also unwilling to share Jerusalem. Without major Israeli territorial withdrawals on the West Bank, concomitant with Israeli security needs, and a negotiated agreement on Jerusalem, it is difficult to imagine any possible Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. At a time of rapid change in the Arab world—something President Obama also pointed to in his State Department speech—this would be a self-defeating strategy for Israel to follow.
Dr.. Robert O. Freedman, a former US Army Infantry officer, is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlststone Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University and is currently Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. Among his publications are: ISRAEL IN THE BEGIN ERA, ISRAEL UNDER RABIN, CONTEMPORARY ISRAEL, and the forthcoming SIX DECADES OF US-ISRAELI RELATIONS.