June 2, 2011

Days into my tenure as mayor of Chicago, with my focus on keeping our city’s streets safe, our schools strong and our finances stabilized, I expected my attention to be in the Midwest, not in the Middle East. But as an American and the son of an Israeli immigrant, I have a deep, abiding commitment to the survival, security and success of the state of Israel.

I am among the many who know that the Israeli people yearn for peace. They have taken risks for peace in spite of dangers. They will again, when they have a viable partner in the process and a region that recognizes a Jewish state of Israel with secure and defensible borders.

President Obama, like every student of the Middle East, understands that the shifting sands of demography in that volatile region are working against the two-state solution needed to end generations of bloodshed. The fragile stasis that exists today cannot hold.

Israel’s survival as a Jewish, democratic state is at stake because of many factors, including uncertainty brought by the Arab Spring, growth in the Palestinian population, unilateral efforts to create a recognized state of Palestine and technological advances in weaponry.

That is why, from his first days in office, the president has invested so much in encouraging meaningful negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. His goal has been one shared by a succession of Israeli and American leaders: two nations, the Jewish state of Israel and Palestine for the Palestinian people, living side by side, in peace and security.

As I listened to the president’s speech on the Middle East, I heard him reaffirm his strong commitment to Israel’s safety, security and prosperity. He said the U.S. relationship with Israel is unshakable. He said that the conflict cannot be resolved through unilateral actions or a U.N. vote establishing a Palestinian state but only through negotiations between the parties.

The president said that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a Palestinian Authority that embraces Hamas, a terrorist organization sworn to Israel’s destruction, and he reaffirmed his commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge. He said that an independent Palestine must be a non-militarized state and that Israel’s security should be demonstrated before phased Israeli withdrawals are completed. No peace can take place, he said, that does not provide Israel with the ability to defend itself.

One sentence that he uttered received the most attention: “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.”

There, the president stated a concept that has been the basis of every serious attempt at resolution since the negotiations President Bill Clinton held at Camp David in 2000. He reminded us that every president and many Israeli elected leaders have recognized that the borders are one starting point for negotiations, not the end point.

That statement does not mean a return to 1967 borders. No workable solution envisions that. Land swaps offer the flexibility necessary to ensure secure and defensible borders and address the issue of settlements.

As the president said at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, “it means that the parties themselves — Israelis and Palestinians — will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.”

Those are the messages the president carried to our allies in Europe last week, as they contemplated events in the Middle East and the prospect of a U.N. resolution. At a time when Israel is increasingly isolated in the world, our president is fighting efforts to weaken and delegitimize the Jewish state in the international arena.

The president I know and worked for is deeply committed to the peace and security of a Jewish state of Israel. I have seen him make unprecedented commitments to guarantee the continued qualitative military edge essential to Israel’s security in a dangerous neighborhood.

I saw him withdraw the United States from the Durban II conference when it became clear the conference’s purpose would be to slander Israel. Through sanctions and other means, he has worked tirelessly to rally the world against Iran and deter its nuclear program, the single greatest threat to Israel. He stood up to the skewed Goldstone report and other efforts to undercut Israel at the United Nations. And he has spent time, effort and political currency to breathe life into a peace process that holds out the best hope for Israel’s long-term security.

No American president can or should attempt to dictate to our staunch ally Israel the terms of peace. Only Israel can determine that, a principle that the president also reaffirmed.

Israel needs a partner in the peace process. To be certain, if during the two years I served in the Obama White House the Palestinians had spent as much time working for peace as they did avoiding the table, the process would be much farther along.

As an American and a Jew, however, I am grateful that this president has not given up trying to find a path that would bring the parties back to the negotiating table. I applaud his continued effort to work on and invest himself in this increasingly vexing and dangerous conflict. All who care about a safe and secure Jewish state of Israel should as well.

The writer is mayor of Chicago and former chief of staff to President Obama.