On May 19, 2011, President Barack Obama delivered a speech to the U.S. State Department in which he embraced three positions unfavorable to Israel.
1. “We believe that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”
2. “The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state.”
3. Start negotiations on borders and security, leaving Jerusalem and refugees for later.
Why were these unfavorable for Israel?
First, Obama’s public endorsement of the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps adopted a position the Palestinians had long advocated and Israel opposed. Neither President Bill Clinton nor President George W. Bush had explicitly made such a public statement. “Mutually agreed” likely means equal land swaps; if so, then the equivalent of the full West Bank is to go to the Palestinians. In contrast, UNSC Resolution 242 famously called for Israeli withdrawal from “territories” and not “the territories.” Russia proposed adding “the” but this was rejected. As former Ambassador Dore Gold noted, Britain’s foreign secretary in 1967, George Brown, stated three years later that the meaning of Resolution 242 was ‘that Israel will not withdraw from all the territories.’”
Second, President Obama’s advocacy of a solution based on the 1967 lines cedes everything over the Green Line to the Palestinians as the starting point for negotiations about land swaps, including the Old City, the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem built since 1967. Border modifications from this starting point would only occur if Palestinians agreed. Effectively, this meant that Obama was endorsing the division of Jerusalem, and doing so in a way that was quite insensitive to Jewish historical and spiritual values.
Third, Israel is opposed to negotiating borders and security first. It has long taken the position that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” Its concessions on land could be traded for more than security; if borders are set before Jerusalem and refugees are discussed, then Israel’s bargaining position on these two matters is seriously weakened.
Fourth, Obama’s call for a full withdrawal of Israeli military forces from Palestinian areas, although phased in over a period of time, means that Israel will have to leave the Jordan Valley, which it considers vital for its defense. Why does this matter?
In 1967, wars were fought with conventional armies. Now, mortars, rockets and the like have proven themselves as weapons of choice in asymmetric conflict. Unlike tanks, troop carriers, and planes, they are small and can easily be smuggled into a territory. Hamas has shown how the control of territory, extensive smuggling, and local manufacture of weapons, combined with the will to use them, can severely impact normal life in Israel. Several thousand rockets and mortars fell on Israel during this summer’s conflict. Normal life in the south of the country was totally disrupted.
If a Palestinian state is established in much of the West Bank, and if Israeli does not have its forces along the Jordan Valley and at border crossings, past Palestinian smuggling behavior suggests that over time a large supply of rockets and mortars will materialize in the West Bank. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and much of the coastal plain, including Ben-Gurion Airport, would be vulnerable in the way the south was this summer. This would constitute a strategic threat to Israel.
This brings up a most crucial question: Would Palestinians in the West Bank use such weapons to attack Israel?
President Barack Obama often praises Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a moderate. Partly because of this view, and because Obama is convinced that the Palestinians must have a state, he minimizes the risks to Israel. Many Israelis, mindful of the long history of Arab rejection of any Jewish state and of the PLO’s 1974 embrace of a phased plan for destroying Israel, are deeply skeptical that Palestinians view a West Bank/Gaza state as their end-of-conflict goal. Instead, they believe that the Palestinians would use the West Bank as a base, one much superior militarily to Gaza, for preparing and then undertaking attacks on Israel.
With this pessimistic (many would say “realistic”) assessment, a Palestinian state in the West Bank, no matter where the exact border is, would pose severe security risks if Israel forces are gone. In his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported a Palestinian state in the West Bank only if its sovereignty were strictly limited with solid security arrangements for Israel permanently in place. Netanyahu supports a security principle espoused by Yitzhak Rabin: Israel’s security border will be the Jordan Valley, “in the broadest meaning of that term.”
During the July 2013-March 2014 negotiations, the PA would only agree to a partial Israeli presence on the Jordan Valley for a very short period of time, about three to five years. As a bridging proposal, the U.S. suggested stationing non-Israeli troops along the Jordan Valley for a longer period of time. However, Israel is unwilling to rely on foreign troops for its security, due to the well-known history of withdrawals or failures of international troops and monitors along other Mideast borders (Sinai, Gaza, Lebanon, and the Golan Heights.)
Even were Abbas ready to declare that a West Bank-Gaza state as the final end of conflict, there is absolutely no assurance that an arms buildup wouldn’t occur or that whoever would follow Abbas would be moderate. And, of course, Hamas might win a new election or simply seize power in a West Bank coup as it did in Gaza.
Why go back to Obama’s speech of May 19, 2011? Because, despite the failure of the recent round of negotiations and despite the severe rocket and mortar attacks of this summer, there is no evidence that Obama has materially modified the views he expressed then. Obama has consistently ruled out virtually all criticism of Abbas and has exerted highly unbalanced public pressure on Israel. Much more pressure on the Palestinians is needed for them to make serious compromises.
To forestall Palestinian threats to go to the Security Council, there have been suggestions that Israel agree to new concessions to get negotiations going again. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have resorted to Yasser Arafat’s old tactics of violence against Israelis and wild incitement against Israel, to add pressure.
Israeli politicians who stress the urgency of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians seem to imply that they would be more forthcoming than the current Israeli government. There are mounting expectations of new Israeli elections during 2015. With Obama still in office, a new government would most likely face strong pressure to make new concessions. Obviously, it would be inappropriate to ask Israeli politicians what concessions they would offer. (One hopes that they would insist that any Israeli concessions be matched by comparable Palestinian concessions and not be just a prize for coming to the table or for abstaining from threatened unilateral actions.) However, it would be quite helpful if political leaders such as Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, would give their current views on the following two questions:
1) Do they believe, optimistically, that there been a dramatic change in Palestinian thinking and that they now seek as their final end-of-conflict goal a state comprised solely of much of the West Bank and Gaza? Or, pessimistically, do they believe that the leaders of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza would continue to work to undermine Israel and, to the extent possible, surreptitiously build up a military threat, much as the P.L.O. did under Oslo during the 1990s and Hamas has done in Gaza since 2007?
The long history of Arab hostility to Israel, including repeated rejection of partition proposals, support for the use of violence, and negation of any Jewish historical connection has been well documented by Efraim Karsh, Benny Morris and other scholars. Their work does not suggest that a state in the West Bank and Gaza would satisfy Palestinian national aspirations. If some Israeli political leaders believe the optimistic scenario, what is the basis for this belief?
2) Even if they believe the optimistic scenario, would they insist on security precautions so that Israel’s security would be maintained if they are wrong?
To elaborate: If the optimistic scenario were true, leaders of a Palestinian state would suppress violence, focus on building up their economy, cooperate with Israel, and strive to improve the health and well-being of the population. Relaxed security arrangements would suffice. But this idyllic scenario seems to many Israelis to be messianic. So, to be prudent, which security safeguards in the West Bank would Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni, and Yair Lapid insist on? And, if the Palestinians reject the safeguards demanded, as seems likely in light of the failures of past negotiations, how would they respond?