The right wing along with the Likudniks in Israel have ginned up a passel of fake outrage over President Obama’s comment in his Middle East speech that “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.” This undercut Israel, according to this theory, threw them under the bus, etc.
But if you listen to non-Likudniks in the region, you would know that Obama’s speech was actually far more deferential to Israel, and inspired more disappointment than anything else in the Arab world. This has not been a feature of the debate in this country.
But it happens to be true. Here’s UCLA Political Science Professor Steven Spiegel of the Israel Policy Forum, with a little reality check:
In agreement with Israel, the President did not offer in detail a list of American positions on all key issues as many in the foreign policy community had urged him to do, he rejected the idea of an imposed peace—a favorite rallying cry of Israel’s opponents for years, he did not call for immediate Israeli concessions on settlements, he denounced the Palestinian plans for a UN General Assembly vote in favor of their independence in September, he spoke out against Palestinian efforts to delegitimize Israel, advocated a “non-militarized” Palestinian state, questioned the Palestinian unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas and put the burden of proof on the Palestinians. Obama pointedly asked, “How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” He framed the conflict in a classic Zionist perspective, arguing that – “a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace”. The President spoke about the close US-Israeli relationship and its need for security. As some Palestinians are already complaining, he did not celebrate close relations between the U.S. and Palestine. No shared history and values; no “unshakeable” commitment to their security.
And perhaps most surprising of all, and ignored by the press, Obama proposed that negotiations should begin by addressing the issues of territory and security and that these should be settled during a transition period before the parties move on to Jerusalem and refugees. This format is precisely what many Israelis and their supporters have argued for years.
Spiegel is absolutely correct, and this is underlined by the perspective of Palestinians in the region. Indeed they saw nothing much in the speech that gives them hope of a peaceful settlement, and certainly not after Netanyahu’s rejection of what has been US policy on the starting point of negotiations for decades.
Mr. (Nabil) Shaath (a leading Fatah official) said that Mr. Obama’s speech conceded most issues to the Israelis, including viewing Israel as a Jewish state, opposing the plans for United Nations recognition and criticizing the Fatah faction for its recent reconciliation pact with Hamas, which the United States designates as a terrorist organization.
On the refugee issue, one of most delicate and intractable in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Obama managed to upset both sides. Mr. Shaath criticized the president for suggesting that refugees could be left, like the status of Jerusalem, for discussion at a later stage after the subjects of borders and security. The Israelis were critical that Mr. Obama failed to spell out that the solution for Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war and their descendants lay not in Israel, but within the borders of a future Palestinian state [...]
Palestinian officials brushed aside the statements by Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu that the recent pact between Fatah and Hamas raises serious problems and requires answers from the Palestinian leadership. Fatah leaders said that the reconciliation was an internal affair that had nothing to do with the peace process.
Perhaps the dampened hopes of restarting negotiations reflects the swift Israeli rejections of the 1967 borders as a launching point for talks, and not the finer points of Obama’s speech. But it’s fair to say that the speech just wasn’t that well-received by the Palestinians or their Arab allies. This statement from an Egyptian activist is representative:
‘On her part, political activist Asma Mahfuz, one of the leaders of the 25 January revolution, expressed anger at Obama’s speech. She told Al-Sharq al-Awsat: “I do not understand the reason for Obama’s talk in which he glorified the Arab revolutions since his administration and the previous US Administrations have supported the dictatorship regimes in the Middle East throughout the past years, and we heard this talk in Obama’s speech in Cairo.”
Mahfuz added: “We say to Obama: Play another trick. We believe that this speech has come to break Israel’s isolation and to support it after its feeling of a full siege. Obama has repeated more than once and emphasized the US friendship with Israel at a time when he expressed concern over the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and HAMAS, in which Egypt played a great role to achieve.” She added that Obama is trying, through voicing support for civil society’s organizations that are not recognized, to give the impression of a US role in paving the way for the Arab revolutions, which is something inaccurate.
Obama may not take back the ’67 borders comment at the AIPAC conference tomorrow morning, but certainly it will be a very Israel-friendly appearance, and the grievances will only continue.
There’s just not a lot of trust in the relationship between the US and the Muslim world, even now. Yet a false narrative has been put forward that this speech antagonized Israel and cuddled up to the Palestinians. In fact practically the opposite it true. This intentional misreading creates despair for the Palestinians for any hope for peace, which I have to think was the intention.