Israel's 1967 borders: Three reasons Obama's stance is a very big deal

In the subtle world of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Obama's step – describing the 1967 borders as something more than a 'Palestinian goal' – could signal a significant policy shift.

By , Staff writer

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    An Egyptian woman watches President Obama's Middle East policy address outside an appliance shop in Cairo, May 19. In his speech, Obama appeared to endorse a key Palestinian demand: a future state with the borders that prevailed prior to the 1967 Six-Day War.
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On Thursday, President Obama said that a Middle East peace agreement should largely be based on the borders that prevailed in the region prior to the 1967 Six-Day War. Furor ensued.

What’s the problem with him saying that? That’s an approach that many experts on the region talk about. It’s been an implicit basis for past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Yet if you’d listen to Israeli leaders and their strongest US supporters, you’d think Obama had just said Hamas was a bunch of great guys.

Obama “threw Israel under the bus,” said GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, for instance.

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Well, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are nothing if not complicated and subtle. And in that context, what Obama said could well be seen as a very big deal.

First, Israel could interpret those words as a shift toward the Palestinians. In the past, US officials have talked often about a Palestine based in 1967 borders – but almost always they’ve presented that as something the Palestinians want. They’ve coupled it with a nod toward Israel security concerns as a way to try to appear even-handed.

Here’s how that worked: In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the result of good-faith Middle East negotiations should be “an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders.”

By dropping “Palestinian goal,” Obama gave Israeli leaders a sharp poke. That is how they could see it, anyway.

“With a small gesture ... he was able to both send a strong message to [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu and to the Palestinians that this was a different US regime, open to different approaches to peace,” writes international affairs expert David Rothkopf in an analysis on the "Foreign Policy” magazine’s website.

Second, it’s not clear how much of the border between Israel and a Palestinian state that Obama was talking about. In his Thursday speech, the president simply noted that two of the most difficult issues to be resolved are the fate of Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem. Yet Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 fighting, and wants to keep it. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be their capital. It's a highly emotional issue for both sides.

Does Obama think the border issue and the Jerusalem issue should be resolved separately?

“In fact, the border is most in dispute near Jerusalem, so achieving a border agreement without resolving Jerusalem cannot work,” writes Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Third, Obama called for a “full” withdrawal of Israeli military forces from the area in question, coupling that with an insistence that any Palestinian state should be “non-militarized.” That will concern Israeli leaders who want to retain a buffer zone of armed forces in the Jordan River valley, on the far side of what would be a Palestinian state.

How and whether Obama’s formulations can get peace talks moving again remains to be seen. To Israel, it may appear as if the US president is hedging his support for its security at a moment when the Arab world is in flux. To supporters of Obama’s approach, all he did on Thursday was to recognize reality.

“The president’s call for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on Israel’s 1967 border with land swaps may have unnerved some Israelis and some of Israel’s supporters, but the speech overall does not fundamentally depart from previous ideas and formulations for resolving the conflict,” writes Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in his online analysis.

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