I said yesterday that Quin's take on President Obama's Middle East speech was off-base, and while I stand by that I want to amend it a bit: A lot of people misunderstood what Obama was saying about the '67 lines as the basis for borders, but that was partially because he was deliberately vague -- and the background statements by White House officials have made things much worse.
Previous presidents have said, essentially, that we know that Israel is never going to pull back to the '67 borders, but that an agreement with the Palestinians must include land swaps. Obama said "the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps." So what had been implicit is made explicit, and what had been implicit has been made explicit. Obama said today in his joint appearance with Prime Minister Netanyahu that their disagreement is over "the precise formulations and language" -- which suggests that, as I said, reading this as a substantive shift in policy is a mistake.
Except that it's hard to read this New York Times account without concluding that the White House has gone out of its way to suggest this is a big deal -- "a subtle, but significant shift" in the Times reporters' formulation. One gets the impression that they're practically bragging about the disagreement with Netanyahu:
Mr. Netanyahu held an angry phone conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday before the speech, officials said, in which he demanded that the president's reference to 1967 borders be cut.
Israeli officials continued to lobby the administration until right before Mr. Obama arrived at the State Department for the address. White House officials said he did not alter anything under Israeli pressure, though the president made changes in the text that delayed his appearance by 35 minutes.
Martin Indyk of Brookings is quoted later in the piece suggesting this was the White House's way of throwing the Palestinians a bone to bring them back to the negotiating table while discouraging their campaign for recognition at the UN, which is probably right. But peace negotiations can't and shouldn't happen as long as the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation holds; a peace agreement with a government that includes Hamas wouldn't be worth the paper it's printed on. Pushing ahead on the two-state solution now is putting the cart before the horse.
All this is a long way of saying the focus on Israel in a long section at the end of Obama's speech was a grave mistake. The word games the White House has decided to play has invited an argument over semantics that is overshadowing all the important points he made about political and economic reform in the region. The Syrian government shot at least 21 more protestors today, and, as the government's obvious complicity in the border breach in the Golan Heights last week demonstrated, there's nothing Bashar Assad would like better than for the Israeli-Palestinian issue to divert attention away from his brutal crackdown. By focusing on Israel, Obama granted the tyrant his wish.
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