In a speech to AIPAC, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his criticism of President Barack Obama’s suggestion that an Israeli-Palestinian peace process have as a starting point the 1967 borders.
Netanyahu, who will speak before a joint session of Congress tomorrow, said he would “describe what a peace could look like” during the speech.
“It must leave Israel with security,” he said. “And therefore, Israel cannot return to the indefensible 1967 borders.”
President Obama made that comment in a speech on Thursday, and swiftly came under criticism, including from Netanyahu himself at a meeting on Friday. In his own speech to AIPAC on Sunday, Obama attempted to clarify, and emphasized that he had said peace negotiations should begin from “the 1967 borders with mutual land swaps,” which, he said, by definition meant they would not begin from the said “indefensible 1967 borders.”
Earlier in the speech, however, Netanyahu thanked Obama for his commitment. Referring to Obama’s speech on Sunday, Netanyahu said, “President Obama has spoken about his ironclad commitment to Israel’s security. He rightly said that our security cooperation is unprecedented. He spoke of that commitment not just in front of AIPAC, but in two speeches heard throughout the Arab world. And President Obama has backed those words with deeds.”
On the subject of an Israeli-Palestinian peace, Netanyahu said that while it was essential for the two parties involved, “it is not a panacea for the endemic problems of the Middle East,” and spoke of the need for democracy in other Middle Eastern countries.
“What the people of the Middle East need is what you have in America, and what we have in Israel: democracy,” said Netanyahu. “It’s time to recognize this basic truth: Israel is not what’s wrong about the Middle East. Israel is what’s right about the Middle East.”
Netanyahu laid out a condition for a peace process that Obama has also acknowledged: that Israel could not negotiate with a country that does not acknowledge its existence.
“This conflict has raged for nearly a century because the Palestinians refuse to end it,” said Netanyahu. “They refuse to accept the Jewish state. This is what this conflict has always been about. … We can only make peace with the Palestinians if they are prepared to make peace with the Jewish state.”
In what appeared to perhaps be a jab at Obama for that clarification on Sunday, Netanyahu said that in Congress Tuesday, “I will speak the unvarnished truth. Now, more than ever, what we need is clarity.”
Others were similarly dissatisfied with Obama’s clarification.
Speaking before Netanyahu on Monday evening, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid voiced his disagreement with the president.
He said he believed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needed to be settled at the negotiating table by those two parties, “and no one else.” The terms of a peace, he said, “will not be set through speeches,” and he added that the negotiations must begin without prerequisites on terms.
“No one can set premature parameters about borders, buildings, or anything else,” he said.
Josh Block, senior fellow at Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and former AIPAC spokesman, noted that Obama had made two important clarifications in his Sunday speech compared to his Thursday speech.
“In addition to the section making clear that ‘by definition’ Israel cannot go back to the 49/67 lines,” he said, “the other key difference between the President’s remarks to AIPAC was the change in the way he talked about Hamas, saying the ‘are a terrorist organization’ with whom Israel should not negotiate. This shift is an important difference and contrasts with what he said Thursday, that Hamas is an organization ‘that has and does resort to terrorism.’”
The official AIPAC statement issued on Sunday after Obama’s speech voiced appreciation for those two changes in particular, and for Obama’s continued “commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
But others simply found the clarification confusing.
“At least when Obama called for a settlement freeze, there was a clear policy attached to his confrontation with Israel,” said Noah Pollak, executive director for Emergency Committee for Israel, on Sunday following Obama’s speech. “This time he is both confrontational and confusing. Today, attempting damage-control, he said that the Israelis and Palestinians ‘will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.’ So why did he bring up the issue in the first place and transform a positive visit into a showdown?”
“Obama is again confirming the impression that he has a special animosity for Israel,” Pollak continued. “He can’t seem to help himself.”
Dr. Robert Friedmann, a professor at Georgia State University and founder of GILEE, the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange, was not satisfied with Obama’s comments.
“I think he means well,” said Dr. Friedmann. “I think he’s going about it the wrong way.”
Friedmann said that the first thing that needed to be dealt with, before the issue of borders or land, was the end of the conflict.
“The beginning negotiating position is the end of the conflict,” he said, adding that “we should start with the end of conflict as otherwise any agreement will be a basis for additional claims.”
“What he has done now is made the Palestinian position even more extreme because now, the Palestinians aren’t going to start from anything less than what the president of the United States said they should do,” he continued, reiterating a criticism that was often heard in the days following Obama’s Thursday speech: that he had taken away Israel’s bargaining chips.
He said that Obama left two crucial issues for a later stage: Jerusalem, and refugees, which would cause problems down the road even if some negotiation could be reached based on the land swaps because if land is relinquished first there will be nothing else to be “given” to the Palestinians to accommodate demand of Jerusalem and the so called “right of return” of refugees. Friedmann opposes the formula of land for peace exactly for this reason.
Friedmann called Obama’s approach “a short term response to a very complex and complicated problem,” and said that he was not being sufficiently critical of the Palestinian position.
“This PA that everybody says they’re so moderate – in its maps, the map of Palestine is the map of Israel,” Friedmann said. “In it’s incitement, it calls streets and squares after terrorists. It vilifies Israel on a daily basis. And it’s not enough to say that it is unacceptable. Words are cheap. I want to see actions. And he has not done anything in terms of actions against this kind of behavior. And if you look at this as two children fighting, what you’re doing here is you’re reinforcing the negative behavior of the bully.”