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Obama's call for Israel to return to 1967 borders a bold move

Opinion: But it was the president's demand for land swaps that will be key to any solution.

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the events in the Middle East and North Africa at the State Department in Washington, DC on May 19, 2011. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — For an American president, calling for a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders with mutually agreed upon land swaps, was a bold move.

U.S. President Barack Obama made it clear to both the Israelis and the Palestinians that the status quo was “unsustainable,” and that “Israel must act boldly to advance a lasting peace. He was no less insistent that the Palestinians get their act in line, and poured cold water on their proposed U.N. vote on statehood in September.

Obama wanted to get his own vision of a solution on the table before he met with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu today, and before the Israeli prime minister addresses Congress. As predicted, Netanyahu’s reaction was negative, saying that a return to 1967 borders would leave Israel indefensible.

However, it is the land swaps, and how they might be carried out, that are the key not only to defensible borders for Israel, but to a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.

David Makovsky, director of the Institute for Near East Policy’s peace project, has made a carefully documented study that shows that the vast majority of Israel settlers are bunched along the old “Green Line,” as the border was called after the 1949 armistice. Markovsky’s studies make it clear that it would be possible to set new borders so that Israel could keep as much as 80 percent of its Jewish settlers beyond the Green Line in place.

This is important, because the settlers are a powerful force politically and emotionally in Israel, and if all of them were forced to uproot, you might risk civil war in Israel.

The key is that the exact location of where the land swaps would take place is extremely important to Israel, for security purposes. The settlement blocs in the West Bank resemble Crusader forts and, like Crusader forts, they are built on hilltops for defense, ringing Jerusalem and lining the old border with Jordan.

For the Palestinians, the exact location of where they get land in exchange for foregoing the big defensive settlements is less important than that the swap be exactly equal.

They need to tell their people that the deal was fair. The Israelis need to show that the deal preserves their security, and that the number of settlers that have to leave is not too traumatic for the Israeli body politic.

The Palestinians would have to agree to a demilitarized state, and some sort of Israeli military and monitoring presence on the border with Jordan. Israel fears a tunnel-ridden frontier for smuggling arms, as exists between Egypt and Gaza.

But what of Obama’s demand that the Palestinians provide a “credible” answer to a key Israeli question: “How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” the president asked.

Netanyahu previously maintained that there was no point in trying to negotiate with Palestinians when they were hopelessly divided between Hamas and Fatah. Yet when they make efforts to unite, Netanyahu says that he won’t negotiate with any Palestinian entity that includes Hamas.

He was right the first time. Negotiations are less meaningful if the Palestinians are split than if they are united. But non-recognition by Hamas need not be insurmountable.

Hamas has said that it will accept a cease-fire and abide by any decision that the Palestinian people would accept in a referendum. If Israel really wanted to further a Palestinian state it could build on that. A cease-fire is basically what happened after the 1948 war set the border of Israel. Except for Jordan and Egypt, the Arab states have not formally accepted Israel’s right to exist to this day. But there is de jure recognition, and a unanimous Arab offer on the table to recognize Israel as a bloc if Israel will agree to 1967 borders, to which the entire Arab League agreed.

So the solution is to agree to deal with Palestinian President Mamoud Abas, who does recognize Israel’s right to exist, as representative of all the Palestinian people, and agree to overlook that some Palestinians still hold out for absolutist rejectionist principals; just as the Palestinians will have to overlook that there are factions in Israel that will never reconcile themselves to a Palestinian state.

In other words, both sides would have to insist that their nay-saying minorities respect the will of the majority of Israelis and Palestinians.

There is not a lot of room for optimism, however. The prospective deal between Hamas and Fatah is paper-thin and could, and probably will, become unstuck when the devil is found in the details. On the Israeli side, Benjamin Netanyahu has spent his entire career trying to appear reasonable, to avoid international pressure, but do everything he can to make a Palestinian state impossible. And the upsets in the Arab world will make Israel more cautious, not more willing to take risks.

I happened to be in Jerusalem when the Oslo Accords were announced, and interviewed both Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Netanyahu. Rabin expressed angry determination that the settlers not be allowed to prevent the peace agreement agreed upon in Oslo, and Netanyahu, in an unusually emotional interview, was equally angry and determined that Oslo was the wrong way to go. An Israeli fanatic assassinated Rabin, and Netanyahu is prime minister of Israel today.

Netanyahu, and many of his supporters in America, want to see a solution whereby Palestinians can be made more comfortable, but in which they would have to accept Israeli sovereignty.

The French tried much the same thing in Indochina, with their doomed hopes for a French Union, and in Algeria too. The Dutch sought to hang on in Indonesia after it was no longer possible. And Britons in India sought much the same, until it was, as President Obama would put it, “unsustainable.” Colonialism, which at its heart means the domination of one people by another, dies hard.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/opinion/columnists/110520/obama-middle-east-speech-netanyahu-israel