The US president is seeking a settlement freeze in the West Bank. Key aides in his administration are convinced that the further Israel expands its footprint beyond its pre-1967 borders, the harder achieving peace will become. The administration's vision is for an eventual Palestinian state along the general lines of the borders that prevailed before the Six-Day War that began June 5, 1967.
The hard-line Israeli prime minister and his aides are furious. "There can be only one meaning to this demand: It is an attempt to determine Israel's borders and the ultimate status of the areas in question in advance of negotiations," the Israeli prime minister says. "We shall never agree to such a step." An aide to the prime minister is even more dramatic, calling the old armistice line the "borders of Auschwitz."
Sound like the back and forth today, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashing out at Obama, and Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney saying the president had "thrown Israel under the bus"?
Yes, it's almost identical. But this was 1992, with George H. W. Bush's administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Mr. Netanyahu, an aide to Mr. Shamir at the time, made the "Auschwitz" comment.
This is all less than 20 years ago and far from ancient history. Which is why it's strange that so many quarters reacted to Obama's statement Thursday as if he'd broken new ground or done something to threaten Israel.
What did he say? "The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps." What does that mean? Well, in practice it means the Israelis and the Palestinians would negotiate bits of a future Palestinian state that would not follow the 1967 borders, with some Israeli settlement blocs presumably being swapped for other bits of Israeli land. 1967 is just a starting point.
That's been the general working idea for the last four US presidencies, including two Republican administrations. Yet not only was Romney striking out at Obama as having undermined Israel's "ability to negotiate peace" but others were reacting with outrage. Mike Huckabee complained of Obama's "betrayal" of Israel.
Huckabee also fell into a camp that apparently misunderstood what Obama said. He complained that Obama "made a grievous mistake by suggesting borders of Israel go back to pre-1967 borders." As did Tim Pawlenty, a fellow Republican presidential aspirant ("Obama's insistence on a return to the 1967 borders is a ... very dangerous demand.") As explained earlier, that's not what Obama said.
The border in question is the 1949 armistice line, or the so-called Green Line that demarcated Israel until the Six-Day War in 1967, which ended in a crushing Israeli victory and the seizure of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights (from Syria) and the Sinai Peninsula (from Egypt). The Sinai has since been returned to Egypt and Israeli settlers have been evacuated from Gaza.
The booming Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank have been among the thorniest of problems for peace negotiators for decades, and that's what the swaps are about. A bigger problem still is East Jerusalem, a topic Obama avoided entirely in his speech.
Netanyahu, who sometimes users bluster as a negotiating tool, practically ordered Obama to change course yesterday. In a statement ahead of his US trip that began today, Netanyahu said a Palestinian state would not be founded "at Israel's expense" and that he "expects to hear from President Obama a reconfirmation of commitments to Israel from 2004." The Jerusalem Post characterized Netanyahu's response as "quick and bitter."
But what is the commitment from 2004? It's a letter written by President George W. Bush that ... suggests more or less the same thing that Obama said yesterday.
"In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population 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," President Bush wrote to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in April of 2004. "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."
Now, the language of Bush's comment may be flipped a little, in the sense that he emphasizes that the borders will be different from the 1949-67 borders rather than emphasizing that those should be the starting point, but the overall sense is the same. The real contours of the borders will be determined between the Israelis and Palestinians with "mutually agreed changes" (in Bush's formulation) or "mutually agreed land swaps" (in Obama's).