international analysis and commentary

Obama’s speech seen from the Middle East


“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,” clarified President Barack Obama in his keynote Middle East speech (on May 19) laying out his vision for Israel and Palestine in the new Middle East. President Obama was actually only echoing an international consensus: there is no state in the world which recognizes Israel beyond the 1949 Green Line, or beyond the 1967 lines. This international consensus notwithstanding, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have entered on a collision course with the American President, posing the retreat to the 1967 lines as a no-go and declaring that “for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities;” the first of which, as Netanyahu pointed out, is that Israel “cannot go back to the 1967 lines – because these lines are indefensible”.

The Israeli call for security is understandable, not least due to the current instability of its neighborhood. But “security” can easily also become a powerful political instrument. To promote the view that the occupied Palestinian territories are necessary for Israeli security could be a way of “securitizing” an area from which Israel exploits natural resources at an unprecedented level. As the Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem explained in its latest report, “most Israeli water drillings in the West Bank – 28 of the 42 drillings – are located in the Jordan Valley. These drillings provide Israel with some 32 million m3 a year, most of which is allocated to the settlements”. Moreover, due to the settlements and related infrastructures, 40% of the West Bank is off-limits for the Palestinian population. The latter already lost about 16% of its land due to the route of the separation barrier.

Shortly before Netanyahu left for Washington (where he met with President Obama on May 20), the Interior Ministry’s district committee for construction and planning approved new construction plans for Har Homa and Pisgat Ze’ev – both settlements beyond the Green Line in the greater Jerusalem area. This mirrored a similar event: in March 2010 settlement construction was authorized shortly before Vice President Joe Biden came to Israel – a decision which resulted in a diplomatic clash between the two countries. This time, the Israeli government risked a renewed spat with the American administration. It is not far-fetched to argue that the Netanyahu’s government wanted to give a sign, since the Israeli Prime Minister also declared, in his Knesset speech before departing for Washington, that one of his five conditions for a peace treaty with the Palestinians is that the “settlement blocs will remain within the state of Israel and Jerusalem will remain its united capital.”

Many Israeli commentators seemed to agree about the fact that bilateral relations are at a historic low; reasons voiced in analysis were a lack of chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu with the Israeli right being traditionally closer to the American conservatives; that the American Jewish community itself is becoming more liberal; last but not least, that American foreign policy interest is shifting its focus away from Israel in the wake of the Arab Spring with elections upcoming in Egypt. At the same time, Israeli politicians like Minister of Defense Ehud Barak sought to brush over the diplomatic incident by stating that the differences between the two countries are “smaller than it seems” and that the “speech was not such a bad thing.” Also Netanyahu, prior to his address to the US Congress, played down the rift. “The disagreements have been blown way out of proportion,” he told The Associated Press last Saturday. “It’s true we have some differences of opinion, but these are among friends.”

Some Israeli analysts have questioned if the Netanyahu government has understood the far-reaching implications of the democratization of its region. Zaki Shalom of the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies wrote that “the Prime Minister will have to work hard to convince the American administration that he is truly willing to veer away from his ideological heritage and political power base in order to generate a dramatic historic shift in Israel’s standing and relations with the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular”.

Reactions in the Arab world to the speech in respect to the peace process were equally varied. Hamas, which called the speech a “total failure”, declared that the American President should have condemned Israeli occupation. Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, declared that his government shares the same principles as President Obama and aims at “the establishment of the independent Palestinian state with these [the 1967] borders, along with a swap of territories.” Also, the PA confirmed its determination to declare a Palestinian state and request recognition by the United Nations despite Obama’s rather strong statement: “efforts to de-legitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.” The Egyptian Ambassador to the UN, Maged Abdelaziz, claimed that Obama’s recognition of the 1967 borders will help the Palestinian statehood declaration. He estimated that if at least 170 or 180 states recognize the Palestinian state, it will be morally difficult for the US to use its veto power.

Success in this quest is central for Fatah in order to win the Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections, which are expected within 12 months in order to bring a legitimate government to the Palestinian people (Abbas’ four-year term expired in 2009, but had been extended indefinitely, and the 2006 parliamentary elections resulted in the division of the West Bank and Gaza). On the Israeli side, elections will be held in 2013. Two polls, released last week in the Israeli media from Globe and Yedioth Ahronoth, confirmed that if elections were held today, the right-orthodox block would remain in power or possibly even gain seats. Indeed, it seems that Netanyahu through his demonstration of strength vis-à-vis the American President succeeded to further unite the right behind him.

But with this policy Israel is increasingly losing international support. Obama pointed out that “the international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation” – a statement that, in the current regional situation, could prove itself more important than ever. Many Israelis are aware of this. As a recent article by the Hebrew University scholar Sergio Della Pergola clarified, the original aim of Zionism was the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine on a legal basis – therefore with the consensus of others.


Remarks by President Barack Obama on the Middle East and North Africa, Washington, D.C., May 19, 2011