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Obama's speech a 'historic shift' on Israel and Palestine? No.

The White House has tried to frame it that way. But there wasn't much there there.

By Staff writer / May 19, 2011

Palestinian lawmaker Mushir Al Masri, watches President Barack Obama's speech during an interview with the Associated Press in Gaza City, on Thursday, May 19. Obama is endorsing the Palestinians' demand for their future state to be based on the borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East war, in a move that will likely infuriate Israel. Israel says the borders of a Palestinian state have to be determined through negotiations.

Adel Hana/AP



If you've read the lead story in The New York Times on President Barack Obama's Middle East speech this afternoon, you're probably under the impression that the president has taken a bold new step to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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The first paragraph of the story, filed from Washington, is quite dramatic. Obama, "seeking to harness the seismic political change unfolding in the Arab world... publicly called for the borders prevailing before the 1967 Israeli-Arab war to be the baseline for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the first time an American president has explicitly taken that position."

The only problem is, it's not much of a shift at all.The key word in that opening paragraph is that word "explicitly." What it means in this context, is that he said something that multiple presidents have said before him, but with slightly weaker language. What did he say? "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."

That an eventual settlement would be based around borders from before the 1967 war, with land "swaps" of some kind to reflect the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, has been a central assumption behind the peace process kicked off under President Bill Clinton in the early 1990s and pursued with subtle variations by presidents George W. Bush and Obama after him. Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters, amid a push to restart peace talks that failed, that a solution could be found that "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."

Sound familiar?

What wasn't in Obama's speech was anything new on how you get from here (complete dysfunction - it's a "process" by convention only at this point) to there (peace). He made no mention of the settlement freeze his administration had pushed for – and failed to get – in return for restored talks with the Palestinian leadership. He also sought to shoot down Palestinian efforts to win recognition for an independent state at the United Nations, something the Palestinian Authority has been gearing up for in September.


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