Understanding Obama’s shift on Israel and the ‘1967 lines’
“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.”
— President Obama, May 19, 2011
This sentence in President Obama’s much-anticipated speech on the Middle East caused much consternation Thursday among supporters of the Jewish state. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who will meet with Obama on Friday, adamantly rejected it.
For people not trained in the nuances of Middle East diplomacy, the sentence might appear unremarkable. However, many experts say it represents a significant shift in U.S. policy, and it is certainly a change for the Obama administration.
As is often the case with diplomacy, the context and the speaker are nearly as important as the words. Ever since the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, it has been clear that peace with the Palestinians would be achieved through some exchange of land for security.
Indeed, Israelis and Palestinians have held several intensive negotiations that involved swapping lands along the Arab-Israeli dividing line that existed before the 1967 war — technically known as the Green Line, or the boundaries established by the 1949 Armistice agreements. (Click here for a visual description of the swaps discussed between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008.)
So, in many ways, it is not news that the eventual borders of a Palestinian state would be based on land swaps from the 1967 dividing line. But it makes a difference when the president of the United States says it, particularly in a carefully staged speech at the State Department. This then is not an off-the-cuff remark, but a carefully considered statement of U.S. policy.
Here is a tour through the diplomatic thicket, and how U.S. language on this issue has evolved over the years.
The pre-1967 lines are important to both sides for setting the stage for eventual negotiations, but for vastly different reasons.
From an Israeli perspective, the de facto borders that existed before 1967 were not really borders, but an unsatisfactory, indefensible and temporary arrangement that even Arabs had not accepted. So Israeli officials do not want to be bound by those lines in any talks.
From a Palestinian perspective, the pre-1967 division was a border between Israel and neighboring states and thus must be the starting point for negotiations involving land swaps. This way, they believe, the size of a future Palestinian state would end up to be — to the square foot — the exact size of the non-Israeli territories before the 1967 conflict. Palestinians would argue that even this is a major concession, since they believe all of the current state of Israel should belong to the Palestinians.
After the Six-Day War, the United Nations set the stage for decades of fitful peacemaking by issuing Resolution 242, which said that “the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East” should include the following principles:
1. Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.
2. Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.
Since the resolution did not say “the territories,” it has become a full-time employment act for generations of diplomats.
Nevertheless, until Obama on Thursday, U.S. presidents generally have steered clear of saying the negotiations should start on the 1967 lines. Here is a sampling of comments by presidents or their secretaries of state, with some explanation or commentary.
“It is clear, however, that a return to the situation of 4 June 1967 will not bring peace. There must be secure and there must be recognized borders.”
— President Lyndon Johnson, September 1968
“In the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely ten miles wide at its narrowest point. The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again.”
— President Ronald Reagan, September 1, 1982
“Israel will never negotiate from or return to the 1967 borders.”
— Secretary of State George Shultz, September 1988
Starting with President Lyndon Johnson, right after the Six-Day War, U.S. presidents often have shown great sympathy for Israel’s contention that the pre-1967 dividing line did not provide security.
“I think there can be no genuine resolution to the conflict without a sovereign, viable, Palestinian state that accommodates Israeli's security requirements and the demographic realities. That suggests Palestinian sovereignty over Gaza, the vast majority of the West Bank, the incorporation into Israel of settlement blocks … To make the agreement durable, I think there will have to be some territorial swaps and other arrangements.”
— President Bill Clinton, January 7, 2001
In his waning weeks in office, Clinton laid out what are now known as the “Clinton parameters,” an attempt to sketch out a negotiating solution to create two states. His description of the parameters is very detailed, but he shied away from mentioning the 1967 lines even as he spoke of “territorial swaps.”
“Ultimately, Israelis and Palestinians must address the core issues that divide them if there is to be a real peace, resolving all claims and ending the conflict between them. This means that the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 will be ended through a settlement negotiated between the parties, based on UN resolutions 242 and 338, with Israeli withdrawal to secure and recognize borders.”
— President George W. Bush, June 24, 2002
Bush slipped in a mention of 1967 in his famous Rose Garden speech that called for the ouster of then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. One could argue that the reference to Resolution 242 was a de facto mention of the 1967 lines. At the time, the Arab League was promoting a peace initiative based on the idea of Israel returning to the 1967 boundaries, and this reference was seen as a nod to that concept. But most experts did not view his reference to “1967” as a change.
“In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”
— Bush, letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, April 14, 2004
When Sharon agreed to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, Bush smoothed the deal by exchanging letters that supported the Israeli position that the 1967 lines were not a useful starting point. The letter infuriated Arabs, but it helped Sharon win domestic approval for the Gaza withdrawal. Interestingly, despite Israeli pleas, the Obama administration has refused to acknowledge the letter as binding on U.S. policy.
“We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.”
— Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nov. 25, 2009
When the Israeli government announced a partial settlement freeze, Clinton responded with a statement that specifically mentioned a state based on 1967 lines, but as a “Palestinian goal.” This was balanced with a description of an “Israeli goal.”
Originally, the Obama administration had hoped both sides would have agreed to acknowledge such goals as a starting point for negotiations — known in the diplomatic trade as “terms of reference.” When that effort failed, Clinton issued the concept in her own name. She would repeat the same sentence, almost word for word, many times over the next 1½ years.
The Bottom Line
In the context of this history, Obama’s statement Thursday represented a major shift. He did not articulate the 1967 boundaries as a “Palestinian goal” but as U.S. policy. He also dropped any reference to “realities on the ground” — code for Israeli settlements — that both Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton had used. He further suggested that Israel’s military would need to agree to leave the West Bank.
Obama did not go all the way and try to define what his statement meant for the disputed city of Jerusalem, or attempt to address the issue of Palestinians who want to return to lands now in the state of Israel. He said those issues would need to be addressed after borders and security are settled. But, for a U.S. president, the explicit reference to the 1967 lines represented crossing the Rubicon.
UPDATE, 4:45 P.M, MAY 20
A number of readers have asked about a statement made by George W. Bush in 2005: “Any final status agreement must be reached between the two parties, and changes to the 1949 Armistice Lines must be mutually agreed to.”
I purposely did not include this in my list because in the annals of diplomacy it is considered a relatively unimportant statement. It was made at a news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, not in a speech or in a letter (where, by contrast, the language is more carefully formulated.) It is essentially a restatement of the 2004 letter, with perhaps a bit more emphasis on “mutual agreement,” designed to please Palestinian ears.
At the time, it was considered an insignificant statement, by the Americans and the Palestinians — and the reporters. I looked back at the 29-paragraph article I wrote on the news conference. It mentioned the sentence in the last paragraph and did not focus at all on the phrase “1949 Armistice Lines.” The New York Times report on the same news conference did not mention Bush’s comment at all.
For diplomatic purposes, speeches and letters will almost always trump remarks at news conferences. The context is also important. As seen by the reporting at the time, no one thought Bush’s comment was remarkable or significant, in contrast to the reception that Obama’s statement on Thursday received. That’s because it was considered simply a restatement of the 2004 letter — which was considered the most explicit description of U.S. policy. Analysts who are citing this as evidence of little difference between Bush and Obama are deceiving themselves.
UPDATE, MAY 26: We answer reader questions on this column.