May 20, 2011

By Matt Duss

TEL AVIV- While President Obama’s speech yesterday wasn’t particularly groundbreaking, I thought it was an important (and overdue) statement of recognition of the deep significance of the Arab uprisings, both for the peoples of the Middle East and for the future of U.S. policy in the region. I’ll confine my comments here, though, to the president’s remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There has been a lot of attention paid to the president’s statement that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” This exact language may be new for a U.S. president, but the sentiment it describes is not. George W. Bush himself made a similar reference to ’67 in a 2005 speech.

To be clear, no one is saying that Israel will be forced to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines. What Obama is saying is that those lines will be the basis for negotiations to determine how much settlement land Israel will be permitted to retain, and how much of pre-1967 Israel must be given to Palestine as compensation.

This really shouldn’t be as controversial as it probably will be. Treating the 1967 lines as a basis for negotiations in this way represents the overwhelming consensus of the international community, enshrined in multiple UN resolutions. That anyone should be confused or surprised about this probably goes to the success that Israeli leaders have had over the years in obscuring it, and the indulgence that American leaders have often shown toward those efforts. (The most notable example of this is George W. Bush’s 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon, in which the U.S. president appeared to unilaterally decide one of the most contentious issues in the conflict — the future of the major settlement blocs — in favor of Israel. Obama’s position on that letter is sure to be an area of intense discussion in his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu.)

I wasn’t thrilled with the equivalence President Obama posited between the Israelis refusing to meet their obligations to halt settlements and the Palestinians walking away from negotiations in response to the Israelis’ failure to meet their obligations to halt settlements, but these sorts of rhetorical flourishes are not the end of the world.

Obama’s criticism of the Palestinians’ pursuance of statehood at the UN was understandable — it does, after all, represent a vote of no confidence in the U.S.’s ability to manage the process fairly — but his dismissal of this effort as “symbolic” indicated a lack of appreciation of just what is at stake, for the U.S. and Israel, should the Palestinians successfully circumvent U.S. brokerage. (This Jerusalem Post article describes the process by which the Palestinians will likely pursue statehood at the UN, and explains why Israel needs to be nervous about it.)

I would say, however, that the most important part of Obama’s remarks on Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not what he said, but just how much he said, where he said it, and what that says about his view of the continuing significance of the conflict for U.S. interests in the region.

In a speech of some 5600 words, almost 1200 of them — 20 percent — were devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This indicates that, while the president’s approach to resolving the conflict may have changed, his recognition of the importance of resolving it has not.

In a speech that spanned a region in turmoil, he came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last. This indicated an understanding that, while the conflict is certainly not the only problem in the region, its continuing irresolution handicaps the United States’ ability to address those other problems.

Again, this shouldn’t be surprising. Barack Obama has been clear about this view since he was candidate for president, when he referred to the conflict as a “constant sore” that “infect[s] all of our foreign policy.” In the two years since he took office, this analysis has been backed up repeatedly by others in his administration, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, then-CENTCOM/now-incoming CIA chief General David Petraeus, and Middle East adviser Dennis Ross. WikiLeaks also revealed Arab rulers deeply concerned about the conflict’s negative impact.

While most in the Middle East, as elsewhere in the world, are concerned primarily with increasing their own security and economic opportunity, there’s no question that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to dramatically impact regional domestic politics. It will continue to be a major determinant of attitudes toward the United States. According to a recent TIME article on expectations for the speech, “for many Arabsincluding every person interviewed in Cairo for this story — the litmus test of whether the U.S. is serious about revising its relations with the Arab world, is its attitude to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

We probably don’t even need to refer to this idea as “linkage” any more. We can just refer to it as reality.

But while recognizing — or, in Obama’s case, re-affirming — reality is important, more important is what he’s going to do about it. And here the speech said little. This speech wasn’t the place for Obama to offer specifics on strategy, but that time has to come soon, in time to avert a looming disaster in September. Having recognized the importance to U.S. interests of resolving this conflict, Obama should also recognize how devastating it would be for the U.S. to spend the time between now and September simply working to block the Palestinians’ unilateral statehood effort. Instead, he should commit to crafting a fair and credible process that could entice them away from it, and bring them back to the negotiating table under clear terms of reference.

I hope last night’s speech marked the beginning of an effort to do that. I must admit that, after the soaring rhetoric/total lack of follow-through of the Cairo speech, I’m not hugely optimistic, but I’m ready to be surprised.

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