President Obama’s much-anticipated Middle East speech on Thursday has unleashed a firestorm of controversy over a single, seemingly innocuous line: “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.” Recall that Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War, and many Israeli settlements now dot this strategic landscape. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted angrily to Obama’s statement, arguing in a heated conversation with Secretary of State Clinton and later in a personal meeting with President Obama that the 1967 borders are “indefensible.” Jewish members of Congress were also critical of this “concession,” and an Israeli settler news organization even referred to the 1967 map as the “Auschwitz borders,” a phrase that New York Times blogger Robert Mackey notes Israeli leaders have sometimes used “to invoke the existential dread of the Holocaust when pressed to withdraw from the occupied territories as part of a peace agreement.”
Interestingly, it isn’t clear how significant a policy change (if any) this represents for the United States. White House spokesman Jay Carney claims that Obama’s statement has been wildly mischaracterized, with critics ignoring the “land swaps” caveat that would allow Israel to maintain certain key territories. It has long been the private belief of many top Washington policymakers and Middle East experts that some version of the 1967 borders would unavoidably be the basis for a two-state solution, but no American president has said this quite so explicitly. Thus it appears to many careful observers that Obama is executing a subtle policy shift toward the Palestinian negotiating position, if only to mollify them ahead of a September UN vote on Palestinian statehood that the U.S. and Israel oppose.
It is worth noting that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu faces important domestic political constraints due to the rules of the parliamentary system and the makeup of his coalition. His governing coalition in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, includes right-wing groups with pro-settler inclinations. Unlike in a presidential system, in which presidents are elected for a fixed term, the head of government (Prime Minister) can lose his or her power if enough members of parliament pull out of the governing coalition, a fact that can give even small parties veto power over government decisions. So even if Netanyahu was of a mind to compromise on the 1967 borders issue, it is not clear that he could do so and have his government survive.
Does the evidence suggest Obama’s statement represents a major U.S. policy shift away from Israel and toward the Palestinian position, or is it fundamentally a restatement of the existing U.S. position? Did Obama make the right call in choosing such language or did he miscalculate, unnecessarily creating tension with an ally and domestic political trouble for himself at a time when there is very little hope for a settlement under the existing Israeli and Palestinian governments?