Breaching the borders

With Obama pressing Israeli back to the pre-1967 lines, Palestinians seek to 'cross the line' as well.

Israeli forces_311 (photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
Israeli forces_311
(photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
In the weeks since US President Barack Obama surprised Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with a demand to renew peace talks based on the “[pre-]1967 lines with land swaps,” the Obama administration has continued to pressure Israel to accept the new formula as part of an effort to steer the Palestinians away from unilateral action at the United Nations in September. But the effort is faltering as Jerusalem has reasserted its rights to “defensible borders” and warned that support for the Palestinian diversion could wreck the peace process entirely.
Meantime, the diplomatic focus on the pre-1967 lines was accompanied by an orchestrated campaign of actual assaults on Israel’s borders, including the most serious attempted breaches along the perennially quiet Syrian border with the Golan since the end of the Yom Kippur War some 38 years ago.
Mounting evidence indicates that Palestinian refugees were purposefully dispatched by Damascus in order to create a diversion from the growing domestic challenge to Bashar Assad’s unpopular rule.
Obama’s new game plan
Various reports since Obama’s landmark foreign policy speech on May 19 have solidified the notion that Netanyahu indeed was blindsided by the sudden shift in US policy on the borders issue as he made his way to Washington.
The White House had informed Jerusalem earlier that the highly anticipated address at the State Department would focus on the so-called “Arab Spring” of uprisings against regional dictators. But Obama decided to also endorse the Palestinian position regarding the pre-’67 lines and had US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton inform the Israeli premier a mere hour before his departure from Ben-Gurion Airport.
Thus a testy Netanyahu landed in the US capital determined to stand his ground with Obama, even in public view. His warm reception in Congress and opinion polls taken afterward among Israelis and Americans all indicated Netanyahu had broad backing in both countries for his defense of vital Israeli interests and claims.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration has sought to preempt the Palestinian unilateral move at the UN by exerting pressure on Jerusalem to openly adopt the president’s position that the pre-1967 lines should be the basis for future peace talks.
The new US push would have the parties negotiate the borders first, before tackling the thorny issues of Jerusalem and the “right of return.” But Israeli officials contend this, too, would undermine Israel’s bargaining position, as it ultimately needs to offer territory in trade for significant Palestinian concessions on Jerusalem and refugees.
Israelis push back
In a series of official statements, media interviews and op-ed columns, Israeli leaders have firmly rebuffed the new US strategy and urged the international community not to cave in to the Palestinian effort to bypass direct talks.
In an essay in the prestigious journal Foreign Policy, Dr. Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the US, argued that “Israel remains committed to the vision of two states living side by side in peace. But peace is predicated on security and on our ability to defend ourselves if the peace breaks down. We need defensible borders to ensure that Israel will never again pose an attractive target for attack.”
Dore Gold, a close adviser to Netanyahu, recently explained the current Israeli thinking to Fox News: “Put yourself in the position of an Israeli prime minister. You look around at the Middle East and you don’t know if the countries around you will even be there in five years or in three years. Will the governments be changed? Will we have more radical regimes? What is going to happen to Iraq after the US army leaves? Will it become an Iranian satellite? And therefore, all the more so, Israel needs defensible borders.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry also issued a document outlining the “Dangers of Premature Recognition of a Palestinian State,” insisting that the Palestinian Authority would “violate its agreements with Israel and all the international frameworks for Mideast peace by seeking premature recognition of a Palestinian state in the UN in September.
“A unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood would intensify rather than end the conflict,” the communiqué added. “Indeed, the Palestinians would no longer have any incentive to negotiate and compromise.”
Speaking to the Knesset last month, Netanyahu himself reiterated the points that Israel believes are necessary for a peace deal: • The settlement blocs will remain part of Israel in a final-status agreement.
• Jerusalem will remain Israel’s sovereign, united capital.
• The Palestinians would have to recognize that Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people.
• A peace deal would need to meet Israel’s security requirements, including maintaining an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley.
• The final-status agreement must end all claims against Israel by the Palestinians.
Netanyahu also has engaged in multiple meetings with European leaders to persuade them not to undercut the peace process by giving in to unilateral Palestinian moves to decide the borders question apart from Israel.
His lobbying efforts appear to be gaining traction, as President of the EU Parliament Jerzy Buzek called it a “dangerous” option during a recent visit to Jerusalem.
A number of Western countries have already signaled they would stand with Israel at the UN in September to oppose a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, including Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Canada. Even the United States has informed both Israel and the Palestinians they will block the move in the Security Council, if necessary, regardless of whether Israel agrees to Obama’s new starting point for negotiations.
Palestinians have second thoughts
In addition to Israel’s bid to build a significant counterweight among some 30 Western democracies to the automatic pro-Palestinian majority at the UN General Assembly, the Palestinian Authority also faces the prospect of losing US financial support, as prominent members of Congress have threatened a cut-off of funds to both the PA and the UN over the move.
“We are under pressure from the Americans and some Europeans to postpone the plan to ask for UN recognition in September,” one PA official acknowledged to The Jerusalem Post. “They are even threatening to impose financial sanctions on us if we don’t comply.”
Analysts also maintain that only the Security Council can recommend to the General Assembly to admit a state as a new member of the world body. Given that the US will veto such a resolution, the PA is thus limited in what it can accomplish at the Opening Assembly in New York this fall.
The PLO already declared a unilateral Palestinian state with its Algiers declaration in 1988, a decision that quickly won the backing of over 110 UN member states. But that declaration did not specify the borders of a sovereign “Palestine.” So the PA’s intent was to now seek support for a renewed declaration of statehood based on the pre-1967 lines.
Yet according to Robbie Sabel, a former legal adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, even that has already passed the General Assembly in an Arabsponsored resolution back in 2003, which specifically cited the “Armistice Line of 1949” as demarcating the borders of “Palestine.”
Sabel told the London-based Jewish Chronicle that General Assembly resolutions are not binding and no UN organ has the authority to delimit national boundaries, which must be agreed to by the neighboring parties themselves. Thus, another unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 lines would not only be meaningless, he said, but it would also be “a violation of the Oslo agreements, enabling Israel to legally claim that it is no longer obliged to fulfill its Oslo obligations, which include transferring funds, supplying electricity and allowing movement of goods and persons.”
As a result, numerous reports of late suggest PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas is looking for a way to save face while abandoning his UN bid, since it has already built up expectations among his people. There is still a heated internal debate among PA officials about maximizing whatever victory they can in New York come September, but Abbas reportedly has realized his push for statehood at the UN will not advance the Palestinian cause.
“The efforts are focused now on how the issue [of UN recognition] could pass through the Security Council without colliding with a [US] veto,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat recently conceded.
Another official in Ramallah told the Post that “the PA leadership would discuss the possibility of postponing the move in return for American and international guarantees.”
“European diplomats have informed me that there is a recognition within the Palestinian Authority that, even though they may have won some European support for unilateral statehood, they realize now it is both illegal and could cost them US backing,” regional expert Daniel Diker, the new secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, told The Christian Edition.
“Palestinian leaders would be shackling themselves to a UN resolution that could actually lose them ground. It would not create a Palestinian state and could jeopardize American funding and diplomatic support. It could also ignite a third intifada that would be aimed at PA leaders and not just Israel, given the climate in the region.”
Diker is convinced Obama made a mistake by invoking the pre-1967 lines.
“This amounted to a clear reversal of past American policy, which since 1967 has been to support Israel’s fundamental requirement for ‘defensible borders.’ Since defensible borders must include an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, this is unachievable through land swaps,” he assessed.
Yet Diker believes the US shift is reversible. “Everything in the Middle East is adjustable. What Israel has been quite good at is adjusting to constantly changing circumstances on the ground... Remember that Iran is the main string-puller in the region, and it will do anything it can to prevent a Palestinian state from emerging, as that is against their perceived interests.”
Indeed, Iranian hands can already be seen in the massive uprising right next door in Syria.
Syrians stage a sideshow
It took a couple months for the Arab Spring to finally hit Syria, but the political upheaval rocking the Middle East is now taking dead aim at the repressive Assad regime in Damascus, where President Bashar Assad is facing the greatest challenge to his family’s dynasty since it seized power nearly 40 years ago.
As might be expected, Assad is fighting back with a brutal crackdown on largely peaceful protests against his dictatorial rule. So far some 1,300 protestors have died, over 10,000 have been imprisoned and now another 10,000 Syrians have fled across the border into Turkey. Yet it seems the harder Assad clamps down, the greater is the determination of the masses to end his heavy-handed reign.
Experts on Syria doubt that Assad will step down peacefully. But the massacres in Syria have even horrified regional players like Turkey, which has its own ghastly record of suppressing its citizens.
Recent reports also indicate that Iranian Revolutionary Guards units and basij militiamen, as well as Hezbollah elements, have made their way into Syria to help defend the Assad dynasty – a key ally of Tehran.
Amid the bloodbath, hundreds of Palestinians from the Yarmouk refugee camp made their way to the border fence opposite Majdal Shams on the Golan on May 15 and made a dash for the Israeli side. Meant to protest the “Nakba” – Arabic for the “disaster” of Israel’s founding on that date in 1948, the clash marked the most serious incident along the normally placid border in decades. The skirmish left several infiltrators dead or wounded while most were caught and returned.
Faced with similar “Nakba Day” attempts to breach Israel’s borders from southern Lebanon, Gaza and east Jerusalem, Netanyahu noted that the timing of the protests showed the Palestinians are more upset about “1948, not 1967.”
In response, a second Palestinian run on the Syrian border was arranged on “Naksa Day” – a new annual protest against the “setback” of the Six Day War of June 5, 1967. But IDF forces were better prepared this time, and the effort was repulsed – although Syrian media falsely claimed dozens of Palestinians were killed.
Israeli officials charged that the Assad regime was deliberately staging the “border provocations” in a bid to divert attention from the massacres it was carrying out against its own citizens.
Indeed, details later leaked out through the UN and other channels that the Syrian military had organized busloads of Palestinian protestors each time and allowed them unprecedented access to the border area. Syrian ambulances and medical teams were also deployed in advance at the breach points, and Syrian state television was on hand to broadcast the confrontations live across the nation.
More “border breaches” are planned in coming weeks, as hundreds of anti- Israel activists are expected to arrive on commercial flights at Ben-Gurion Airport on July 8 in a dramatic display of solidarity, while more seaborne “Free Gaza” flotillas are in the works.
The irony of it all is that President Obama’s speech on May 19 was meant to refocus attention on the Syrian government’s brutality against its own people, promising that confronting Assad for choosing “the path of murder” would be “a top priority” of his administration. Instead, the spotlight has been on his misguided effort to press Israel back to the pre-1967 borders.
The struggle in Syria appears to have reached a point of no return, as the Sunni majority and other opposition groups seem determined to see the stand-off against Alawite minority rule through to the end. Israeli analysts warn that Assad may risk more violent confrontations with Israel in a desperate bid to stay in power. Yet as more than one commentator has noted, it is Syria – not Gaza – that is in need of a freedom flotilla. •
With contributions by Herb Keinon, Yaakov Katz and Khaled Abu Toameh.