Mountain or Molehill?

Obama’s remarks reflect only minor semantic shifts in what has actually been America’s position since the Clinton administration.

Obama Netanyahu 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Obama Netanyahu 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A number of analysts, including several published here, are suggesting that President Barack Obama’s comments on Thursday regarding the peace process mark a major shift in American policy, and will have serious repercussions for the peace process. In fact, Obama’s remarks reflect only minor semantic shifts in what has actually been America’s position since the Clinton administration. 
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Moreover, these minor changes don’t matter. Historically, what American presidents have said should be the final status deal has never convinced the sides to actually agree on that position.  More importantly, as the president himself pointed out, the parties are still too far apart on Jerusalem and refugees to actually close a deal. Until convergence on those issues becomes realistic, none of this really matters.
First, note that Obama’s “bombshell” only consisted of two sentences buried in the latter part of his address. “The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe 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.” He then called for a “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces,” leaving the Palestinians with a “sovereign, non-militarized” state.
Upon close inspection, this is essentially what the “Clinton Plan” of December 2000 argued as well: “between 94-96 percent of the West Bank territory” going to the Palestinian State. “The land annexed by Israel,” continued Clinton, “should be compensated by a land swap of 1-3 percent in addition to territorial arrangements such as a permanent safe passage.” Regarding the Jordan Valley, Clinton proposed, “the Israeli presence would remain in fixed locations in the Jordan Valley under the authority of the international force for another 36 months.” He then said Israel should maintain three early warning stations in the West Bank with a Palestinian liaison presence, subject to review every decade but requiring mutual consent to alter.
Even Obama’s term “non-militarized state” was something Clinton came up with as a compromise between Israel’s demand for a “demilitarized state” and the Palestinian demand for “a state with limited arms.”
In short, the main difference here is that Obama said explicitly what Clinton meant. Clinton did not refer to the 1967 lines. Clinton did not say Palestine would border Jordan. But it is impossible to infer otherwise on either point.
Even more enlightening, compare Obama’s position to that of his predecessor George W. Bush in his famous April 14, 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon. At the time, Sharon branded this letter as some sort of major achievement for Israel (despite the obvious fact that such “letters” do not obligate future presidents to anything). What was Sharon’s “major achievement?” Bush wrote that “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations 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… any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”
Is that really so different from either the Clinton or Obama formulations? Bush refers to the 1949 armistice lines instead of the June 4, 1967 lines - which in most places were identical. The main differences are along the Golan, and if anything, the 1967 line is slightly better for Israel - even if it lies short of the more justified 1923 international boundary.
And then Bush says that changes should be made to these 1949 lines to reflect “existing major Israeli populations centers” - which is exactly what the call for land swaps does as well. As the Clinton plan points out, the major settlement blocks - where roughly 80 percent of settlers lived - compromise only about 5 percent of the West Bank. Again, we are talking about boundaries based on a slightly modified version of the June 4, 1967 line.
The main difference of substance is that Bush did not explicitly call for a land swap, as did Clinton and Obama, to compensate for these minor modifications. Yet, this brings me to the more crucial point: none of this matters.
One has to ask, did Bush’s letter to Sharon influence the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating that took place afterward? Did Palestinians, for instance, suddenly give up on the idea of land swaps because Bush failed to mention it explicitly? Of course not.
Similarly, whatever position Obama stakes out, it is largely irrelevant. Whether he explicitly says the Palestinian “right of return” can only be to the new Palestinian state, or (as he did) the “state of Palestine [will be] the homeland for the Palestinian people” - it will not dictate the words either side insists on in future negotiations. Israel will continue to demand that the Palestinian refugees and their descendants be repatriated to the Palestinian state because no other deal is viable; just as Palestinians will never compromise on getting back the vast, vast majority of the West Bank.
Finally, while Obama seemed to be suggesting that the sides should proceed on issues of security and territory first, dealing with Jerusalem and refugees later, this is equally a non-starter. Neither side’s interests are served by a partial peace deal.
For the Palestinians, there is no way to ensure Israel will eventually compromise on either issue, and so they will fear that a new interim agreement will become the de facto final status agreement. For Israelis, an interim peace deal will not actually include a Palestinian declaration that the conflict is over, and so it is hard to understand how this will give us the “peace” we seek. As Palestinian frustration over Jerusalem and refugees will re-emerge, so too will attempts to use violence to coerce Israel back to the negotiating table. Presidential platitudes aside, no peace deal will truly be robust enough to ensure Israeli security if all claims are not formally settled.
The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.