Analysis: Obama’s interpretation of Obama

Clarifications US president provided in speech went part way in appeasing Israel, but coded messages are not good enough.

May 23, 2011 01:53
Obama addresses the 2011 AIPAC conference

Obama AIPAC 311 . (photo credit: Screenshot)


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WASHINGTON – Toward the end of his 25-minute speech to AIPAC on Sunday, US President Barack Obama paraphrased the Talmud, saying it teaches us that “so long as a person still has life, they should never abandon faith. And that lesson seems especially fitting today.”

It seemed apt for the president to cite the Talmud in this address, since much of his speech was to give his own Rashi, or interpretation and clarification, to what he himself said in his Middle East policy speech on Thursday.

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And the interpretation – the clarification – was much more pleasing to the Israeli government’s ears than the speech itself.

There were four main issues that Obama discussed on Thursday that irked Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: his reference to the 1967 lines; his wishywashy language on the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation; his failure to reiterate clearly that Palestinian refugees would move to a Palestinian state, rather than a Jewish one; and his seeming to rule out an Israeli security presence on the Jordan River.

On two of the issues – the 1967 lines and the Hamas- Fatah reconciliation – Obama’s remarks on Sunday were more in line with Israel’s position. On the issue of a presence on the Jordan River, Netanyahu would have liked to hear more, and on the refugee issue the prime minister would have liked something completely different.

Regarding the 1967 lines, Obama clarified that he did not mean that he thought Israel would have to return to the lines that existed on June 4, 1967, which would mean ceding the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall, the giving up of Ramot, Gilo and other post-1967 neighborhoods in Jerusalem, and the US reversal of a position stated by president George W. Bush in his 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon that any agreement would have to take into account “new realities on the ground.”

Saying that his reference on Thursday night to the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps, was “misrepresented several times,” Obama went on to explain himself.

What this means, he said, is that the Israelis and Palestinians “will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.

That’s what mutually agreedupon 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.”

From Israel’s point of view, the important line here was his mention of “changes that have taken place over the last 44 years,” an echo of what Bush said in his letter that “in light of new realities on the ground, including alreadyexisting major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.”

Israel interpreted this Bush formulation to Sharon as US support for Israel keeping the large settlement blocs, something Obama seemed to be winking at on Sunday for the first time.

The second improvement from Netanyahu’s point of view over the original speech had to do with the Hamas- Fatah reconciliation. After Obama’s speech on Thursday, Israeli officials were stunned that the president had not been more forceful in coming out against the Hamas-Fatah pact, refrained from calling Hamas a terrorist organization, and did not reiterate the Quartet’s three conditions for engaging with Hamas: its forswearing terrorism, recognizing Israel and accepting previous agreements.

But Obama did all of that on Sunday.

Calling the recent agreement between Fatah and Hamas “an enormous obstacle to peace,” Obama said that “no country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction. And 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.”

He then added later in the address, as if to emphasize the point, “We know that peace demands a partner – which is why I said that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist. And we will hold the Palestinians accountable for their actions and for their rhetoric.”

Those comments, as well as Obama’s strong statements on Iran and his clear remarks against the Palestinians taking the statehood issue to the United Nations in September, obviously pleased Netanyahu.

So much for the full part of the cup.

Regarding the less-than full part, Obama did not backtrack from comments he made on Thursday that a future Palestinian state would border Jordan, Egypt and Israel, meaning that Obama does not accept Netanyahu’s demand that there will have to be an Israeli security presence along the Jordan River.

Here, Obama restated what he said on Thursday: “Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security.

And a full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign and nonmilitarized state,” he said. “And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.”

Netanyahu himself has indicated that in his mind, an Israeli presence on the Jordan River, to prevent the smuggling of weapons and terrorists from Jordan to the West Bank and as a buffer against any threat from the east, could be reevaluated many years down the line if the Palestinians proved themselves capable of securing the border. Obama’s formulation is not at odds with this.

The biggest omission in Obama’s speech on Sunday, from the Israeli government’s point of view, had to do with refugees. Israel would have liked to hear from Obama on refugees the same construct that was articulated by Bush in his letter: “The United States is strongly committed to Israel’s security and well-being as a Jewish state. It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final-status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.”

Instead, on three different occasions Obama spoke of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, saying at one point that a future Palestinian state would be the homeland for the Palestinian people – code for there not being a right of “Palestinian return.”

But in the atmosphere of distrust that prevails these days in the Netanyahu-Obama relationship, Israel would have liked everything to be spelled out. Code, in this current environment, is not good enough – even following the clarifications Obama provided on Sunday.

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