Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Obama, Israel, and the Jews

President Obama's speech to the State Department last week has occasioned much heated debate in the American Jewish community. These arguments have centered chiefly on the President's unprecedented declaration that "‎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." Though it is true that this has been the tacit basis of negotiations for more than a decade, Obama is the first U.S. president to publicly endorse such a formula. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has added more heat than light to this situation, responding with a long tirade as to why Israel can not return to its pre-1967 boundaries. This was a deeply obfuscatory rhetorical strategy, one that I suspect, given the power of Mr. Netanyahu's intellect, was quite disingenuous. Netanyahu knows very well that the issue is not whether Israel can or should return to its pre-1967 boundaries, but whether those should serve as the conceptual basis for a new Palestinian state. All negotiations in recent years have assumed that many Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank will remain within Israel; the adoption of the 1967 boundary as a benchmark only establishes the principle that a future Palestinian state must be compensated for such Israeli annexations by the transfer of equivalent uninhabited lands to Palestinian sovereignty. 

The "indefensibility" of the 1967 boundaries was a well-worn shibboleth invoked by Netanyahu in response to Obama's speech. This is a further deflection from the point of Obama's initiative, and willfully ignores the heart of his message. In the same speech Obama committed the U.S. to the proposition that the future Palestinian state must be constitutionally demilitarized, an acknowledgment that both states emerging from the two-state solution will be secure jointly or not at all. Israel will in effect have to stand surety for the safety of the future Palestinian state, leaving the defensive perimeter of Israel virtually unchanged in the wake of a two-state solution.

As a Jew and a Zionist, I hope my fellow Americans will correctly see the right side of this divide. What Obama has offered is a reasonable way forward, and what Netanyahu has offered is a truculent and tendentious defense of an unsustainable status quo. The timing of Obama's speech is, as many commentators have noted, far from arbitrary. The Palestinian Authority is planning to apply for UN recognition this fall, and such recognition will only be forestalled by a U.S. veto. Should that happen, both Israel and the U.S. will be cast into severe diplomatic isolation, and the path toward peace will become even more intractable. In the face of this contingency, President Obama's initiative is as wise as it is bold. For him to risk some of the political capital that he has accrued in the wake of Osama bin Laden's demise shows vision, leadership, and a sincere concern for the cause of Israel and peace. It would be a shame if the American Jewish community were to be taken in by the rhetorical attacks of Prime Minister Netanyahu. If that should happen, the greatest losers (after the Palestinians) would not be Obama or his party, but the Israelis themselves.

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