UNTIED NATIONS — Here are three immediate questions I have following President Obama’s speech at the State Department today:
1. Mr. Obama made clear that “Ultimately, it is up to Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them, not by the United States, not by anybody else.” So why did he go on to do the imposing on borders?
“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,” Mr. Obama said.
As Prime Minister Netanyahu noted in an instant tweet today, Mr. Obama’s predecessor, President Bush, in an official 2004 letter to Prime Minister Sharon, noted that since Israel’s defensive war of 1967, new conditions exist, and those must be taken into account. Mr. Bush’s letter indicated that America could not force on Israel a full retreat to the 1949 armistice line, which is also known as the 1967 lines.
Mr. Obama has not fundamentally altered that policy — both he and Mr. Bush had said that any changes must be agreed by both sides. But by specifically making the 1949 armistice line as baseline, he changes the tenor of any future negotiations.
2. What does this line mean? “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.”
Assuming that Mr. Obama’s omission of Israel’s long border lines with Jordan and Egypt that exist south of the West Bank and Gaza is no accident, this locution may refer to Israel’s wish for presence on the putative Palestinian State’s borders with its Arab neighbors — and specifically the West Bank’s eastern flank, which borders Jordan.
In a Knesset speech Monday, Mr. Netanyahu made clear that security cannot be maintained unless the Israeli Defense Force maintains a presence on the Jordan River line. Amman too endorses an IDF presence there, although it would never admit it. The constant stream of weapons coming to Gaza from Egypt since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 has taught Jerusalem security officials to beware of a border with another Arab state.
3. Are long established Palestinian obligations under past pacts about to be changed? “The recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel — how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist,” Mr. Obama said, adding that “In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.”
The Quartet — America, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations — has formally conditioned the participation of Hamas in any future negotiations on its acceptance of strict terms: Recognize Israel, commit to non-violence and accept all past agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
But immediately after talking about Israel’s “profound and legitimate question” regarding Hamas, Mr. Obama added, “Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.”
Some quartet members, and surely the Arabs, are bound to read that line as a call to make more “flexible” the current conditions that in effect bar Hamas’s participation in the talks – and therefore opening the door for the Islamist, pro-Osama bin Laden organization to become a legitimate peace partner.