President Obama’s May 19 speech on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has by now received so much attention that it is almost pointless to criticize it one more time. It was offensive to Israel on multiple accounts, as PM Netanyahu and many others have made clear. No international agreement has ever defined the 1967 truce lines as the future borders of Israel, and no Israeli administration has ever agreed to accept such borders. The truce lines make Israel indefensible. To make the lines permanent would invite continual Arab efforts to fulfill the dream of a world without the Zionist entity.
But having made this foolish suggestion, the President then took it back, sort of, with his qualifier: “subject to mutually agreed swaps.” In one important sense, this made his suggestion nothing more than a reaffirmation of what has been on the table all along – the same old song, with a new title. (The President even made this claim in his speech to AIPAC on Sunday.) That the armistice lines might be adjusted in some way by agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has always been the goal of the endless “peace process.” That the Arabs have always rejected such swaps – most recently in 2000 – is precisely why the process has never ended.
So one part of the President’s formula antagonized the Israelis, and the other part antagonized the Palestinians – whose leaders in any case have no intention of letting Israel have any borders at all. The President’s proposal comes hard on the heels of the re-marriage of Fatah and Hamas, so that Fatah has now stopped even pretending that it was once was prepared to accept a Jewish state. That its endorsement of the “two-state solution” was phony all along was obvious to anyone paying attention to what the PA was preaching in its schools and on its TV stations, but these facts are apparently beyond what the State Department and the White House are able to notice.
The President’s proposal also follows Palestinian Authority President Abbas’ announcement that he will seek UN recognition of “Palestine” – and the President’s defenders have suggested that he was trying to show that the US was willing to pressure Israel in return for a Palestinian agreement to drop this plan. Fat chance. Given the way the President has been treating Israel lately, including his last minute notice of the May 19 speech, the Palestinians are bound to conclude that if they don’t exactly have a friend in the White House, the Israelis no longer have one either, which leaves the Arabs free to commit whatever mischief they want.
Having, figuratively speaking, fallen down the stairs with an armful of china, the President picked himself up and tried to move on. “Obviously there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language,” he said, “and that’s going to happen between friends.’’ But the damage had been done, and it will be nearly impossible to undo it. This would matter more, of course, if there had ever been any real chance that the “two-state solution” had a future. It doesn’t now, but it never did, really, since the Palestinians have never believed in it. The only way to make a “bold new departure” in the Middle East would be for the President to speak this truth, publicly, and let the Arabs begin the painful process of growing up. Now that would be a real Arab Spring.
In addition to being a diplomatic disaster, this spectacle raises some disturbing questions about the decision-making process in the White House and the State Department. Was there no one among the President’s closest advisors willing to warn him that he was wandering into a swamp? Were none of his advisors even aware that he was wandering into a swamp? We know that Barack Obama’s greatest gift is his self-confidence; here, as on many other occasions, his self-confidence has proved to be his greatest burden as well. And it is interesting how often supremely confident people are careful to shield themselves from people who know more than they do.
Was Hillary Clinton one of those who knew? Surely, given her proximity to the Oslo Accords, she knew what a bomb this speech was. Why didn’t she say anything? Or did she? And will we have to wait for the memoirs to know for sure? And where was the peripatetic Senator Kerry, our Secretary of State in waiting? And where are the other Democratic Party foreign policy honchos so eager to tell President Bush why his foreign policy was bound to fail?
Finally, what are we to make of President Obama and his Israel problem? Some people warned that, given Barack Obama’s friendship with anti-Israel activists like Bill Ayers and Rashid Khalidi — a domestic terrorist and a flack for the PLO – he would probably push the US-Israeli relationship in a new but damaging direction. What he has done in office confirms the warming: his silly apologies to the Arab world, rewarded with the equivalent of a blank stare; his hemming and hawing about Iran; his tepid and contradictory response to the so-called “Arab spring”. These failures show that President Obama has no grasp of American interests, of how the world works, of who the nation’s truest allies are, or of what dangers lurk in the world outside his head. That he dislikes Israel has been obvious for most of his career; that he is utterly out of his depth as President of the United States is now more apparent than ever.
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