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President Obama's Speech and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Fact-Based Analysis


In a major speech delivered at the State Department on May 19 President Obama outlined his administration’s policy in the Middle East and North Africa, making some clean breaks with what had been key elements of US policy in the region for decades.

Regarding the Arab Israeli conflict, it is important to note that the President did maintain some aspects of his predecessors’ policies, saying, for example:

For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will 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. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.

As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums...

Ultimately, it is up to Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them, nor can endless delay make the problem go away. But what America and the international community can do is state frankly what everyone knows: a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

But President Obama also profoundly changed key elements of US policy on the Arab-Israeli question. Here are excerpts from those portions of the speech:

1. President Obama: 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.

Prior policy has been not to publicly spell out what the territorial outcome should be, since this would tend to harden positions and make compromise between the parties more difficult. The Bush Letter (April 14, 2004), for example, stated:

As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.

In his letter President Bush didn't put forth any baseline, and was careful to refer only in negative terms to the 1949 Armistice lines, saying that these would not be the final outcome of negotiations.

It is also important to note that the Bush Letter was endorsed overwhelmingly by the House and the Senate in a non-binding concurrent resolution, H. Con. Res. 460. (Among those voting in favor was then Senator Hillary Clinton.)

In departing from the terms of the Bush Letter, President Obama may call into question the value of such Presidential assurances, including his own, thereby making these and future negotiations more difficult.

Similarly, at the Camp David negotiations in 2000, when President Clinton tried to synthesize the positions of the parties and offer what he felt were viable compromises, he dictated the "Clinton Parameters" to the parties in private without giving them copies, and without a map of the proposed land swaps. Here in a FoxNews interview is Dennis Ross's detailed description of how and why this was done:

BARNES: I have two other questions. One, the Palestinians point out that this was never put on paper, this offer. Why not?

ROSS: We presented this to them so that they could record it. When the president presented it, he went over it at dictation speed. He then left the cabinet room. I stayed behind. I sat with them to be sure, and checked to be sure that every single word.

The reason we did it this way was to be sure they had it and they could record it. But we told the Palestinians and Israelis, if you cannot accept these ideas, this is the culmination of the effort, we withdraw them. We did not want to formalize it. We wanted them to understand we meant what we said. You don't accept it, it's not for negotiation, this is the end of it, we withdraw it. So that's why they have it themselves recorded. And to this day, the Palestinians have not presented to their own people what was available.

BARNES: In other words, Arafat might use it as a basis for further negotiations so he'd get more?

ROSS: Well, exactly.

HUME: Which is what, in fact, he tried to do, according to your account.

ROSS: We treated it as not only a culmination. We wanted to be sure it couldn't be a floor for negotiations.

Thus, in presenting his proposal and preferred outcome in public, President Obama has markedly departed from President Clinton's strategy, which was intended to avoid providing the baseline for future negotiations should his peace efforts fail.

2. President Obama: Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met.

Previous Presidents have refrained from stating publicly the territorial outlines of a Palestinian state in this way, because it removes from Israel the basic bargaining chips needed in the negotiations. What can Israel now trade to the Palestinians in return for necessary Palestinian compromises?

3. President Obama: But precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.

Unlike his predecessors, here President Obama seems to be placing requirements on Israel alone to make compromises for peace – there is not a similar call in the speech for the Palestinians to "act boldly" to achieve peace with Israel. Unfortunately, this may well cause Israelis to believe that the administration is taking sides, and thus make a peace agreement more difficult to achieve.

4. President Obama: Two wrenching and emotional issues 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 Israelis and Palestinians.

This is the only place in the speech mentioning refugees. Nowhere does the President say that there will be no "right of return" and that the Palestinian refugees (which includes actual refugees and their far more numerous descendants) will find their homes in a future state of Palestine and not in Israel. This is a clear departure from previous Presidents.

For example, in the FoxNews interview, Dennis Ross said that President Clinton proposed that:

On the issue of refugees, there would be a right of return for the refugees to their own state, not to Israel, but there would also be a fund of $30 billion internationally that would be put together for either compensation or to cover repatriation, resettlement, rehabilitation costs.

Similarly, in the Bush Letter, President Bush said that:

The United States is strongly committed to Israel's security and well-being as a Jewish state. It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.

Omitting this position will likely encourage the Palestinians to harden their stance on a claimed "right of return" to Israel, which would make achieving peace that much harder.

5. President Obama: In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel – how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist. 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.

Of course, Hamas did not just refuse to recognize Israel's right to exist, it also engaged in thousands of terror attacks against Israeli civilians, including suicide bombing and rocket attacks. And while the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas certainly raises questions for Israel, does it not also raise questions for the United States? After all, Hamas is recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States and by the European Union, and US aid to a Palestinian Authority that reconciles with Hamas would be barred by law. This prohibition is contained in the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 and also under the Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2009, which specifically bars funding to any entity related to Hamas and any government which includes Hamas.

In addition to the legal issues, omitting US concerns regarding Hamas is also a major departure from prior Presidential policies and promises to Israel. In the Bush Letter, for example, President Bush assured Israel that:

The United States will join with others in the international community to foster the development of democratic political institutions and new [Palestinian] leadership committed to those institutions, the reconstruction of civic institutions, the growth of a free and prosperous economy, and the building of capable security institutions dedicated to maintaining law and order and dismantling terrorist organizations.

Is the US now retreating from the Bush promise to foster the dismantling of Hamas?

And during the Clinton Administration the Interim Agreement was negotiated, which required in Article XIV that:

3. Except for the Palestinian Police and the Israeli military forces, no other armed forces shall be established or operate in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

4. Except for the arms, ammunition and equipment of the Palestinian Police described in Annex I, and those of the Israeli military forces, no organization, group or individual in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip shall manufacture, sell, acquire, possess, import or otherwise introduce into the West Bank or the Gaza Strip any firearms, ammunition, weapons, explosives, gunpowder or any related equipment, unless otherwise provided for in Annex I.

Additionally, at the Summit of Peacemakers, co-hosted by President Clinton in 1996, the participants pledged:

D. To promote coordination of efforts to stop acts of terror on bilateral, regional and international levels; ensuring instigators of such acts are brought to justice; supporting efforts by all parties to prevent their territories from being used for terrorist purposes; and preventing terrorist organizations from engaging in recruitment, supplying arms, or fund raising.

E. To exert maximum efforts to identify and determine the sources of financing for these groups and to cooperate in cutting them off, and by providing training, equipment and other forms of support to those taking steps against groups using violence and terror to undermine peace, security or stability.

And the Roadmap under President Bush required that:

Rebuilt and refocused Palestinian Authority security apparatus begins sustained, targeted, and effective operations aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure. This includes commencing confiscation of illegal weapons and consolidation of security authority, free of association with terror and corruption.

So, will Fatah and the PA reconcile with Hamas at the same time that they dismantle Hamas, as called for in US law, the Oslo Accords, the Bush Letter, the Summit of Peacemakers and the Roadmap? In his speech, unlike President Clinton and President Bush, President Obama failed to take any position on this key issue.

6. President Obama: For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could get blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them.

This is the only place in the speech where President Obama mentions the incitement to hatred of Jews and Israelis that is prevalent throughout Palestinian society, despite the fact that it is one of the prime obstacles to peace, and is specifically barred by many of the agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. To cite just one example, the Roadmap states that:

Palestinian leadership issues unequivocal statement reiterating Israel's right to exist in peace and security and calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire to end armed activity and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere. All official Palestinian institutions end incitement against Israel.

President Obama's omission is therefore yet another departure from past key policies. While President Obama calls on Israel to "act boldly," he does not call on the Palestinians to "act boldly" to finally end this corrosive culture of hatred.


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