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ADL Reaction to President Obama’s Remarks on the Middle East

Posted: May 23, 2011


President Obama’s recent remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict marked a significant improvement over where the administration has been regarding several critical areas of the conflict.   


There are a number of points in his May 19 speech at the State Department which raise legitimate concerns, including mischaracterizations of the president’s reference to 1967 borders and the failure of the president to explicitly mention that a resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue will not include a “return” of their descendents to Israel, and that such a return would represent a security threat to the Jewish state. 


There were numerous positive elements in the president’s speech which addressed key Israeli concerns and priorities which should be recognized.  The president: 


  • Upheld the strong U.S. commitment to Israel“As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values.  Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable.” 
  • Rejected the effort by Palestinians to unilaterally declare statehood at the United Nations - “Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.”
  • Criticized Hamas, the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement, and expressed understanding about Israel's concerns about the agreement – “Palestinians leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection...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?  And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.”
  • Emphasized that peace is up to the parties to negotiate, and cannot be imposed by anyone – “Now, ultimately, it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to take action.  No peace can be imposed upon them – not by the United States; not by anybody else.”
  • Extensively discussed Israel’s security needs and right to self-defense.  Insisted that a Palestinian state must be "non-militarized" – “As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat.  Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security.  The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state.  And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.”
  • Renounced efforts to delegitimize Israel“For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure...And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums.”
  • Affirmed Israel as a Jewish state, and called on Palestinians to recognize Israel’s right to exist – “And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist...A lasting peace will include two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people...”

There has been controversy regarding the President’s statement:  We believe the borders of Israel and Palestinian should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”   Since the speech, there have been misleading headlines that President Obama called for Israel to return to 1967 borders.  Israel has a legitimate policy that 1967 borders are indefensible – based on the Jewish state’s tenuous security position from 1948-1967 where, at places, Israel was only 9 miles wide.   We share Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s concern that the Palestinians and the international community not consider a return to pre-1967 borders as tenable or something which Israel would even consider in negotiations.  We would further encourage the United States to make clear that it considers strict 1967 borders to be indefensible for Israel. 


There are also concerns about the security implications for Israel if the refugee issue is not addressed at the same time as borders and security. 


While hearing the words “based on the 1967 lines” may be troubling and may have been better left unsaid, taken together with “mutually agreed swaps” and “secure and recognized boundaries,” we don’t believe it is necessarily inconsistent with President George W. Bush’s 2004 letter to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon talking about territorial adjustments, and is not necessarily inconsistent with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the Knesset on May 16 in which he talked about the need to retain the settlement blocs, implying by omission that the rest might not be retained. 


In a May 22 address to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the president further clarified his reference to the 1967 borders:

…It was my reference to the 1967 lines -- with mutually agreed swaps -- that received the lion’s share of the attention, including just now. And since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” means.

By definition, 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. That’s what mutually agreed-upon swaps means. It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years. It allows the parties themselves to take account of those changes, including the new demographic realities on the ground, and the needs of both sides. The ultimate goal is two states for two people: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people -- -- and the State of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people -- each state in joined self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

The President’s articulation can still give Israel space to negotiate.  Of course, progress is dependent on the Palestinians abandoning their imprudent and self-defeating actions, including campaigns to delegitimize Israel, plans to unilaterally declare statehood, and a unity agreement with a Hamas which remains committed to violence, rejection and anti-Semitism, and return to bilateral negotiations.

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