President Obama told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) today that his misinterpreted comment about a peace deal in the Middle East using the 1967 borders as a starting point, with mutually agreed swaps, was an utterly uncontroversial statement reflecting longstanding US policy. Here is the exact statement:
There was nothing particularly original in my proposal; this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations. Since questions have been raised, let me repeat what I actually said on Thursday — not what I was reported to have said.
I said that the United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps — (applause) — so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
Now, that is what I said. And it was my reference to the 1967 lines — with mutually agreed swaps — that received the lion’s share of the attention, including just now. And since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” means.
By definition, it means that the parties themselves -– Israelis and Palestinians -– will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. (Applause.) That’s what mutually agreed-upon swaps means. It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years. (Applause.) It allows the parties themselves to take account of those changes, including the new demographic realities on the ground, and the needs of both sides. The ultimate goal is two states for two people: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people — (applause) — and the State of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people — each state in joined self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace. (Applause.)
If there is a controversy, then, it’s not based in substance. What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately. I’ve done so because we can’t afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades to achieve peace. (Applause.) The world is moving too fast. The world is moving too fast. The extraordinary challenges facing Israel will only grow. Delay will undermine Israel’s security and the peace that the Israeli people deserve.
Overall, the speech had some hawkish tendencies, but this section addressing the controversy was the major point. And I’m sure we could all have envisioned a scenario where Obama responded far more meekly to the criticism, or tried to disavow what he said. But he really didn’t. He addressed the silly controversy head-on. And attached to that, he made a pretty compelling statement about the necessity for such a framework if Israel is to survive as anything but a pariah state. It was a pretty good moment for the President, a view espoused by such otherwise critics as Glenn Greenwald.
I don’t believe Obama is guided in these efforts by any principled concern or moral empathy for the plight of Palestinians or the injustice of the 45-year-old occupation; it seems clear that he isn’t ever driven by considerations of that sort. But what he is, at least compared to the prior President, is a competent technocrat, a more calculating imperial manager, able to rationally assess costs and benefits with a ruthless analytical stoicism. And Obama has been surrounded by top advisers — such as Gen. James Jones and David Petraeus — who clearly recognize, and have publicly said, that the festering Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and the (obviously accurate) perception in the Muslim world that the U.S. enables Israel, is harmful in numerous ways to U.S. interests in the region. Especially with largely anti-Israel Arab public opinion starting to supplant easily manipulated, U.S.-serving Arab tyrants, it is vital — for what the U.S. government perceives to be its interests in the region — that Israel reach a peace agreement, and that in turn requires that the U.S. use its leverage to pressure Israel to do things it plainly does not want to do.
Now, I’m not so naive as to think that this will somehow change the familiar trajectory of Arab-Israeli relations. Benjamin Netanyahu’s misreading of Obama’s words has had the desired effect – it dashed any small hope of renewed peace talks. Congress still operates with a virtually unthinking support of Israel in all matters, and the US will almost certainly stick up for Israel at the United Nations when the Palestinians apply to the General Assembly for statehood, pressuring allies to vote down the request. But I think it’s best to view this 1967 borders flap in isolation. Obama could have taken the easy and familiar way out, and capitulated to those who dishonestly seized upon his words. He chose not to do so. I’m happy for that.
UPDATE: And now, Netanyahu aides are playing down the differences with Obama. They’re the ones backing down.