A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

What's the Deal in Israel?

Completely confused by the dustup about Israel over the last week and a half? I think this review will clarify what some of the handwringing was all about.

I've been thinking a lot about the reaction of much of the Jewish community to President Obama's speech about Israel (full transcript here).

Obama said, principally, that any future peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians must be based in the 1967 line (the "Green Line"), with the assumption that there will be land swaps (which I believe can be understood to mean that Israel will not have to abandon or dissemble important settlements in the West Bank).

The President also said that Hamas must recognize Israel, and he made clear his opposition to the UN Vote currently expected in September in which the UN will vote to recognize Palestine as a state. It will pass the General Assembly, we can assume, and then be vetoed in the Security Council.

The reaction from important quarters of the Jewish community to Obama's comments regarding the 1967 line was one of outrage. Many people felt that he had, to quote Mitt Romney, "thrown Israel under the bus."

My reaction to this anger and frustration was one of puzzlement. Here's what I said in the Intermountain Jewish News, in an article quoting several area Jewish leaders.

I’m a bit baffled by much of the critical reaction to the president’s speech.

First, Obama made clear his opposition to the UN vote and affirmed the necessity of Hamas’ recognition of Israel.

Second, in asserting that the 1967 line should form the basis of negotiation (and not, as some have characterized it, ‘insisting’ that Israel withdraw to it), Obama formalized what has been universally recognized inside and outside Israel as the de facto starting place of any peace initiative. It was the basis of Oslo and the informal position of the previous two administrations.

The status quo is unjust, contrary to our highest values, and unrealistic. If our love for Israel leads us to fear any step toward negotiation, we will end up endangering Israel.

Most puzzling to me is the fact that Obama's comments appear to be identical to those made in a Novemeber 2010 joint statement from Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They said,

The Prime Minister and the Secretary agreed on the importance of continuing direct negotiations to achieve our goals. The Secretary reiterated that "the United States believes that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements." Those requirements will be fully taken into account in any future peace agreement.

So, what gives? Well, a very astute article by Peter Grier of the Christian Science Monitor points out a very subtle difference between the Obama speech and the Netanyahu/Hillary statement. Obama didn't characterize the 1967 line as a "Palestinian goal," which the joint statement does. Those who would like to read a great deal into this (supposed) omission argue that Obama made the shift from merely acknowledging the neutral fact that 1967 line as a Palestinian desire to stating it as a desire (a policy) of the United States.

I'm still not quite convinced that we should read that heavily into the omission of the phrase "Palestinian goal." Here's Aryeh Eldad of Israel's nationalist National Union (Ichud Le'umi) party said

I wonder why all the pundits were so excited about Obama saying '1967 borders' as if he invented something knew. We tend to forget these were the Clinton guidelines, that Barak negotiated with Arafat based on them. Ehud Olmert also negotiated on these terms with Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] - and they all failed.

At its core, Obama's statement that a future peace should be based upon the 1967 line, with land swaps, is very old news indeed. It has been known inside and outside of Israel for many, many years that this is the only possible future for a Palestinian state, and therefore, for peace. In 2000, 2001, and 2008 the Israeli government used those lines as the basis for (failed) negotiations with the Palestinians.

The notion that because of those failures, Israel or should now back away from negotiations on that basis is a sad and dangerous one. So, Israel takes the position that is always mischaracterized as being the more knowing, more realistic, more "tough" stance and gives very little. What then? (Look at The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg writing in Bloomberg online for an argument as to why the Palestinians should be thrilled with Netanyahu's current position).

What does the future hold for Israel under circumstances in which the Palestinians are not offered a viable state? An Israel that is not Jewish? An Israel that is not democratic? An Israel that is in constant conflict? An Israel surrounded by Arab neighbors whose governments are currently unknown quantities? Dependent on the United States for billions of dollars in aid at a time when support for Israel is less and less strong and widespread among Americans?

Those are the questions that must be answered. They must be answered before we reject as unrealistic the only path to peace that Israeli and American leaders and negotiators have taken seriously for years.


  1. very thoughtful analysis.

  2. All good points and peace is indeed an essential goal. But with the right more in control in Israel and Hamas now a part of the Palestinian team, quibbling over this speech seems irrelevant. A political solution seems more elusive than ever.