Until the current president took office, it was accepted U.S. policy — consistent with multiple U.N. resolutions, expressions of U.S. policy and international agreements — that a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood was unacceptable and that Israel was entitled to defensible borders. While the administration hasn’t formally rejected either of these, there is certainly cause for worry.
The Middle East Quartet has been discussing the potential for a proposal for Palestinian statehood based upon the 1967 borders “with land swaps,” which is commonly understood to refer to settlements. Israel has repeatedly and forcefully told the U.S. that such borders would be indefensible. And yet the Quartet continues to mull this over, now delaying a scheduled meeting. This is curious since the U.S. is part of the Quartet. Why hasn’t the Obama administration told the Quartet, which operates on consensus, flat out to forget about such a formulation?
Some reports suggest the U.S. is doing so. (“The US – which along with the EU, Russia and the UN makes up the Quartet – is reportedly uninterested in the meeting at this time, concerned that declaring parameters along the 1967 armistice lines would unnecessarily antagonize Israel and not necessarily bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.”) However, in his recent visit Dore Gold referred to this report in the Economist last month:
If Mr Cameron offers Israel mixed messages, he does so with the blessing of America’s president, normally reliable diplomatic sources claim. Faced with what they see as the intransigence of the Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu, Europe’s big beasts and America are moving closer in outlook, according to those sources. Before the UN vote of February 18th, Barack Obama reportedly encouraged Mr Cameron and others to take a tough line on Israel. In phone calls to his European allies, Mr Obama is said to have expressed frustration at Mr Netanyahu’s approach to settlements, but to have explained he had “too many domestic fires to extinguish” to risk a bust-up over Israel.
The White House strenuously denies this account. Number 10 would only confirm that Mr Cameron and Mr Obama had been in “regular touch” over the peace process. Since these are private conversations, it is tough for The Economist to know exactly what was said. But, in private, European officials have told Israel that their pressure is choreographed with America.
Gold said he did not have personal knowledge of this very serious charge, but observed that European diplomatic had made the same allegations.
It seemed that this was something that could easily be clarified. Beginning last Thursday I started questioning the State Department. Could its spokesman confirm that the U.S. would oppose a proposal for a ’67 border settlement, given Israel’s categorical statements that such borders would not be defensible? Could the administration confirm it would oppose and seek to block moves by the U.N. or Quartet to recognize a Palestinian state unilaterally (i.e., not as a product of bilateral negotiations)? These are not hard questions, and the fact that the administration would face questioning is an indication of how strained the U.S.-Israeli relationship has become.
After much back and forth, the only statement I could receive from a State Department spokesman was this non-answer: “Our goal remains to get both parties back to the negotiating table — that is, we believe, the best way to reach a comprehensive solution. We continue to engage with the parties to make that happen, and within the Quartet to see how it can best support that process.” After further prodding the spokesman offered, “We do not support any unilateral declaration of statehood.”
I was then referred to another State Department spokesman. Edgar Vasquez in Near East Affairs was equally circumspect. Is the U.S. supporting or encouraging a Quarter proposal for a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders? All he would say is “U.S. policy hasn’t changed.” The spokesman indicated the “preference” was for the parties to return to the bargaining table. “We are in discussions with the Quartet to support the [direct negotiation] process.” What about a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state? “We do not think this is the way to go.”
Administration equivocation has also rankled key members of the House and Senate, where support for Israel is strong and widespread. A senior Senate aide was chagrined at the State Department’s waffling. “This sounds like a bad episode of State Department Gone Wild. The Administration should not abandon America’s long standing policy on Israel’s right to defensible borders. We need to hear in no uncertain terms that this Administration will not allow any Quartet statement that endorses a Palestinian state based on ’67 borders.”
Likewise on the House side, members of both parties are nervous that the administration is playing this too cute by half. A congressional aide to a key Democrat on Israel???? tells me, “The administration ought to remember where Congress is on this issue. The fact that they insist on continuing to go out of their way to upset many of their key supporters in Congress is baffling.” He noted this wasn't the first instance in which Israel has been strung along. He recalled, “As with the U.S. veto at the U.N. in February, the administration seems to be interested in repeating virtually every political and diplomatic mistake that led up to that vote. I assume they’re going to do the right thing, but it would be nice if they didn’t make us hold our breath for so long.”
“Strategic ambiguity” is often helpful in dealing with our foes. The administration may be preserving vagueness in order to keep the Palestinians talking. But in the case of Israel, it is a dangerous game that may cause the Palestinians and Arab states to miscalculate, and it may embolden the voices of international de-legitimizers who seek to undermine Israel’s right to exist and to live within defensible borders. If Congress wants to get clear answers or make a definitive statement of its understanding of U.S. policy, it will, it seems, have to grill the administration or issue its own declarations of policy.