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.
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."
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.
"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," Obama said, in a speech in which he repeatedly praised nonviolent protest in other parts of the region in pursuit of national "self-determination."
To be sure, Israeli Prime MInister Benjamin Netanyahu's office expressed outrage. "Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004," the PM's office tweeted. "Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines." Judea and Samaria is a term for the West Bank.
On security, there was much to reassure Netanyahu. "As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state," Obama said.
Aluf Benn, a senior foreign policy and national security columnist for the Israeli paper Haaretz, writes that part of the speech in fact contains a key victory for Netanyahu, far more important than any subtle US shift in language. "In return for his call for the establishment of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, without defining the size of these lands, Obama accepted Netanyahu's demands for strict security arrangements and a gradual, continuous withdrawal from the West Bank," he writes. "The points of the speech were surely pleasing to Netanyahu's ears. Obama promised he won't force a deal on Israel and the Palestinians and demanded both sides to return to negotiations. He did not condemn, as he did before, the Israeli settlements in the territories as "illegitimate" and did not demand a settlement freeze. He only reminded, in a critical tone, that Israel continues building settlements, as an explanation for the deadlock in peace talks."
What does all this mean? Well, we haven't heard much from the Palestinians yet. But Obama chose to directly criticize the recent Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, one of the few things that Mahmoud Abbas has done in years that was generally popular among his people. ("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?")
It makes it hard to see a breakthrough coming on the back of all this.