Since the president’s Arab Spring speech, friends of Israel have been nervous about at least two issues: the promise Israel would not have to sit down with those who seek its destruction and the negotiations based on the “1967 borders with land swaps.” This weekend it became apparent that there is much to worry about and that the Obama administration has been playing a game usually practiced by the Palestinians, namely telling its domestic audience one thing and the negotiating parties something different.
The trouble for the administration began on Friday afternoon when Eli Lake published a story for the Washington Times.
The White House is pressing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to publicly adopt President Obama’s view that Israel’s pre-1967 border should be the basis for future peace talks.
The Obama White House appealed to Jewish leaders on Friday that the request of Israel was part of an effort to head off Palestinian plans to declare an independent state at the United Nations in September.
The request of Mr. Netanyahu was made Monday to the prime minister’s top peace negotiator, Yitzhak Molcho, at a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the National Security Council, according to an Israeli diplomat based in Jerusalem.
Lake also wrote:
Steven Simon, the new White House National Security Council senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, told representatives of the Jewish Community Friday during a conference call that the White House was looking to get both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government to adopt Mr. Obama’s “principles as a basis for negotiation,” according to a recording of the call played for the Washington Times.
Mr. Obama’s position is “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”
Is the U.S. president pressuring Israel to adopt a position that is not its own and diminishes its bargaining position? And what happened to the statements in President Obama’s speech to AIPAC that Israel could not be expected to sit down with those who want to destroy it? After all Hamas has not yet agreed to the Quartet principles (recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and abide by past agreements), nor has Mahmoud Abbas separated himself from the unity government. To the contrary now he is renouncing past agreements including the Oslo Accords, which call for mutually negotiated final borders and prohibit the parties from taking unilateral steps that would impair negotiations.
I contacted the White House on Friday regarding the latter issue. I asked multiple times, “1.Can you confirm that the president’s position is that Israel should come to the table even without a commitment by Hamas to the Quartet principles and without Abbas breaking with Hamas? 2.If he is asking for 1967 borders from Israel, has anything been asked of Abbas before coming to the table?” Thomas Vietor, the NSC spokesman, refused to give a direct answer, referring me back to Obama’s speech:
1. The President was pretty clear about this in his speech. He said, “Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table. In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel — how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.” He also said that “We will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace, including recognizing Israel’s right to exist and rejecting violence and adhering to all existing agreements.”
2. The President laid out several principles for negotiations in his speech. These include that “a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples,” with “Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people,” “a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims” and security arrangements that are “robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security” in a “non-militarized” Palestinian state. He also said that the “borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”
But that didn’t answer the question. Is the administration now asking Israel to sit down with Abbas absent a commitment by Hamas or a break-up of the unity government? By gosh, that should be an easy answer (“No!”) , yet the administration won’t say.
This is a very, very big deal. Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams explained to me Friday evening: “I hope news reports of what the Obama White House is privately demanding of Israel are wrong. If the reports are right, the U.S. is now abandoning the Quartet Principles — and asking Israel to negotiate with a Palestinian side that includes Hamas without Hamas taking one single step away from terror. The Palestinian ‘concession’ if these negotiations start would be to pull the plug on seeking U.N. membership.” Moreover, it is a “concession” with very little meaning. Abrams told me that the Palestinians “can’t get U.N. membership if the U.S. vetoes it, so this looks like a desperate White House effort to avoid having to veto. It would leave Israel negotiating with Abbas in the mornings while he is negotiating with Hamas in the afternoons.Then when he gets the Hamas deal the negotiations will collapse, just like they did last year.” He cracked, “The only thing left of that effort is the memory of Mubarak’s purple-black dyed hair in the East Room.” And like clockwork, Obama’s position now becomes the Palestinians’ latest precondition. It’s almost like they are on the same team.
Although it was a Friday evening, Capitol Hill was already rumbling. A GOP adviser told me, “If the administration really wanted to, it could pressure the Quartet to formally oppose the Palestinians’ unilateral move at the U.N. and nip the whole issue in the bud in a long weekend. Clearly, they would rather use this situation to box Prime Minister Netanyahu into a false choice between unilateral statehood and ’67 borders. The Congress will reject this false choice and so should the PM.” Moreover, Democrats who have been spinning the president’s conflicting statements as best they can may now feel burned. A longtime Middle East insider put it this way: “If there are preconditions [for Israel], then that is a change in policy. Just like the mistake we made over settlements, as Abbas said, leading him up a tree. And this time, not only creating a new Palestinian precondition to talks, but in essence giving the P.A. an excuse to pursue the U.N. track, if this latest gambit to wrest pre-negotiations concessions from the Israelis — and nothing from the Palestinians — ends in failure.”
Now what about the 1967 borders? Democratic defenders of the president have insisted that “1967 borders with land swaps” is nothing new. But it appears it certainly is. As the insider noted, “Yes, they are pressing for ’67 with swaps, not exactly ’67. But that’s not really the point — they’ve already adopted what was a Palestinian ‘goal’ as U.S. policy.”
And it is actually worse than that. On Saturday I asked a State Department official authorized only to speak on background: Does “1967 borders with land swaps” mean “1967 and then we discuss swaps” or does it mean “1967 borders plus the swaps that the parties previously agreed to in negotiations including the Jerusalem suburbs”? The latter, I pointed out is consistent with the 2004 Bush-Sharon letters, but the former is not. In fact, if it is 1967 and then they discuss land swaps, that is the same as starting with the 1967 borders. Period. And ure enough the State Department official tole me, “It means swaps that the parties will agree on in the course of direct negotiations.”
To be clear, Israel is being pressured to give up prior understandings that the Western Wall and the Jerusalem suburbs, for example, would never be part of a Palestinian state. A veteran negotiator explains, “This administration believes that every single deviation from ‘the 1967 borders’ must be paid for by Israel in a one to one swap. That has never before been the U.S. government’s demand, and it weakens Israel’s bargaining position.” In other words, there is zero difference in the Obama scheme between “1967 borders” and “1967 border with land swaps.” In both, the starting point is borders Israel has deemed indefensible.
Congressional friends of Israel are likely to be enraged A spokesman for Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) conveyed the senator’s view: “The president’s insistence last month that Israel return to the pre-1967 borders represented a significant departure from past U.S. policy and has been roundly repudiated by members of both parties. Given this lack of support, even from his own party, it is inconceivable why the President would continue to undermine the position of our democratic ally Israel in its negotiations with a hostile neighbor.”
I spoke to Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who plainly was angry over the continued effort to bully Israel. He said in a phone interview, “President Obama never learns. His real instinct is to weaken Israel. You don’t treat an ally this way.” He said he has never seen this sort of behavior from any U.S. president. After the apparent “rapprochement” following the Arab Spring speech, King says the current posture is “shameful.” Given the strong support in the Congress for Israel, will there be resolutions or a cutoff of funding for the Palestinians? He said firmly that it is time to start “fighting fire with fire.” In other words, as much as Obama seeks to pressure Israel while whispering vague promises to the American Jewish community, the Congress may very well try to recalibrate the balance. We should at least have one branch of government in our ally’s corner, right?