The last time President Obama attempted to fundamentally shift U.S. policy against Israel—when he tried to order the Israeli government to prevent Jews from building homes in Jerusalem—the backlash, domestically, and from Congress, was so severe that he had to back down. On this occasion, the situation is still developing—Netanyahu meets Obama today, and will himself address a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday—but I think in this case the damage to Israel is all but impossible to undo. (File it under “elections have consequences.”)
President Obama will undoubtedly face a backlash at home from erstwhile supporters of Israel and from Congress, over his invocation yesterday of the “1967 lines” as being the basis for borders between Israel and the proposed state of Palestine. However, at least as I see it, he has left himself a technical escape clause by also mentioning “mutually agreed [land] swaps.” He will fall back on that to defend himself from domestic critics; already spokespeople are saying, “There’s nothing new here. Everyone knew a final agreement would start with the 1967 border and then swap things around so Israel was secure and ‘Palestine’ was contiguous.” But there’s a big difference between something being up for negotiation between the parties, and when an external party—in this case, the most important external party, and the only one Israel has been able to look to for any support whatsoever—effectively announces that the issue is no longer up for negotiation.
And, to my mind most crucially of all, when the United States government advances the rhetoric in any way that weakens Israel’s position, the rest of the world can be counted on to take it a further mile. When President Bush became the first American president to actually make the ultimate creation of a Palestinian state official U.S. policy, he framed it this way:
I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts. If the Palestinian people meet these goals, they will be able to reach agreement with Israel and Egypt and Jordan on security and other arrangements for independence.
And when the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbors, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state whose borders and certain aspects of its sovereignty will be provisional until resolved as part of a final settlement in the Middle East.
George W. Bush, in terms of his basic sentiment and worldview was surely, as Ariel Sharon believed, the best friend that Israel had ever had in the White House. Now, however, George W. Bush is retired to Texas. Ariel Sharon—who used his own credibility as a warrior to have Israel unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank—is in a coma following a brain aneurysm. So do leaders set in motion great changes which they think they will be able to shepherd to a conclusion, and so does fate mock their plans.
How does the situation in the West Bank and Gaza reflect the benchmarks George W. Bush set above? The answer is that the Palestinians have not achieved any of these benchmarks, and a Palestinian state in these circumstances would simply be a launching pad-in-waiting (and probably not waiting very long) for attacks to destroy the Jewish state. Yet, the rest of the world doesn’t care about that. Once a Palestinian state became the explicit goal of even the United States (Israel’s “staunch ally”) then the rest of the world moved on to, “Where is it already?” The idea that the Palestinians should meet any targets whatsoever—even recognizing Israel’s right to exist—has been flushed. In September, the U.N. General Assembly will likely vote to recognize a Palestinian state, regardless of everything.
Now, President Obama has shifted the rhetoric further to Israel’s disfavor, by using the term “1967 lines” to describe the basis of a settlement. He will argue, as I said above, that this doesn’t restrict Israel from negotiating over land swaps and security arrangements. Obama will also argue that he made this move precisely to deter the U.N. from recognizing a Palestinian state before a peace agreement was made. But even if that were successful (which I doubt), it would be at best only a very temporary reprieve. For the rest of the world, which was ready to recognize a Palestinian state anyway, this simply opens another door: It should be not just any Palestinian state, now, but a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders (when, by the way, there was no Palestine; as there never has been a Palestine, politically-speaking).
Israel has been robbed of almost every bit of leverage it could have in these “peace negotiations,” which the Palestinian side has been unwilling even to sit down to. And why indeed should they sit down and talk with the Israelis? A policy of waiting has now given them a U.S. president willing to dictate the terms to Israel on their behalf, while the “moderates” on the Palestinian side are busy making plans to govern hand-in-hand with their Hamas terrorist compatriots.
As said, the situation is still in play, and the Obama administration is going to get substantial blowback for this dangerous tilting of the argument against Israel’s vital interest. But once those representing the United States have shifted the rhetoric in this profound way, it is very hard to see how Israel can claw its way back to a stronger negotiating position. And the stakes for Israel, unlike President Obama, are not merely political, but existential.