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Monday, May 23, 2011

Obama sticks to his guns in convoluted dance with Netanyahu


US President Barack Obama arrives to speak to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. (Getty photo)

US President Barack Obama arrives to speak to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. (Getty photo)
US President Barak Obama may have stuck to his guns in a speech to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, but the president’s credibility rides on his ability to persuade Israel to accept that the boundaries of a future Palestinian state will be based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

That is likely to be a long and convoluted process.

If Mr. Obama’s speech on Sunday to AIPAC was a barometer of his willingness to stick to his guns following his tough and frank exchange on Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Mr. Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Tuesday will indicate how far the Israeli Prime Minister intends to go in resisting the president’s vision.
Mr. Netanyahu’s response to a speech by Mr. Obama on Thursday in which the president for the first time referred to the pre-1967 borders as the basis for the boundaries of a Palestinian state was to allow a government panel to approve construction of 1,500 homes in annexed east Jerusalem.

Some critics charge that Mr. Obama, despite insisting on the pre-1967 border principle, in effect started to back down in his AIPAC speech by refraining from employing the word occupation when referring to the West Bank conquered by Israel in 1967 and by making no reference to the controversial Israeli settlements on Palestinian soil.

Mr. Obama is certainly aware that in a world in which semantics are analyzed in excruciating detail and attributed political significance his use of words and failure to employ certain phrases would be interpreted as potential shifts in his position.

Fact of the matter is that packaged in between assurances of US friendship with Israel and commitment to its security, increased US military assistance and a reiteration of demands that Hamas recognize Israel, the president refused to back away from his controversial position he first declared on Thursday.

Mr. Obama’s insistence on the pre-1967 borders, a position he says was common ground for past US presidents even if they had refrained from stating so publicly, constitutes a major gesture to the Palestinians who have long argued that peace talks are bound to fail as long as Israel and the United States refuse to acknowledge those boundaries as the basis for negotiations.

To be sure, Mr. Obama’s insistence in line with Israel’s position that a future Palestinian state be demilitarized makes it difficult for Palestinians and Arabs to see Mr. Obama as trying to position the United States as a more evenhanded partner in any peace process.

The president nonetheless argued forcefully in his AIPAC speech that Israel could no longer ignore changing realities on the ground. His referral to the changing demographic realities by virtue of a high birth rate of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship catered to Israeli opposition arguments that Israel needs to withdraw from the West Bank to preserve the Jewish nature of the state.

By doing so, Mr. Obama implied that Mr. Netanyahu may have to reconstitute his coalition by replacing his hard-line, rejectionist coalition partners with the more mainstream opposition Kadima Party led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni if he wants to pursue peace.

The president further argued that achieving a Middle East peace was a matter of urgency because technological advances make it increasingly difficult for Israel to rely on military and security measures alone. Mr. Obama added that the mass anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa meant that Israel can no longer deal exclusively with autocratic Arab leaders but must also engage with Arab public opinion.

The president finally sought to capitalize on Israeli concerns that it was becoming increasingly isolated internationally and risked losing support of its traditional allies in Europe and Latin America, Mr. Obama, while rejecting attempts to get Palestinian statehood recognized by the United Nations General Assembly, explained the Palestinian push as the result of impatience with the stalled peace process in Europe, Latin America and Asia.

So far, Mr. Obama’s strategy to coax Israel into accepting the pre-1967 borders as the basis for the boundaries of a Palestinian state has yet to be defeated. The president insisted in his speech that the final delineation of borders would involve land swaps to ensure that at least some Israeli settlements on the West Bank can be incorporated into Israel without the Palestinians surrendering more land than they already have.

For his part, Mr. Netanyahu has so far been careful not to take a confrontation with Mr. Obama to the brink. Aides to the prime minister responded positively to Mr. Obama’s speech expressing satisfaction that the president had made clear that he saw the pre-1967 borders not as the final delineation between Israel and Palestine but as the basis for negotiations. They quoted Mr. Netanyahu as saying he wanted to work with Mr. Obama.

Mr. Netanyahu has as much of a vested interest in appearing constructive irrespective of what his true intentions are as he has an interested in confronting Mr. Obama head on. Appearing constructive wins him the continued support of Israel’s staunch supporters in the Congress as well as that of US public opinion.

Confrontation increases his credibility with Israeli hard liners.

Mr. Netanyahu so far seems to be tailoring his response to Mr. Obama by catering to what Americans want to hear. By doing so, he remains engaged. Mr. Obama’s risk is that he may end up with an Israeli position that has gravitated slightly toward his but no way far enough to kick-start peace talks.

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