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Politics 1967 Borders: Obama Faces Opposition to His Peace

As President Obama travels through Ireland and
Britain and eventually to France for the G8 Summit,
he faces domestic and Israeli opposition to his
proposed peace plan. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu publicly rebuffed the president during
their White House meeting this past week and a
number of attendees to this year’s AIPAC conference
have offered public criticisms of the president’s efforts
to offer a construct for future Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiations.

Additionally, a number of U.S. lawmakers have offered their opposition for the
perceived shift in official U.S. policy. Moreover, Mr. Netanyahu was invited by the
GOP to address a joint session of Congress and again publicly rebuffed Mr. Obama’s
position on pre-1967 borders. To be expected, President Obama’s public calls for a
return to pre-1967 borders has generated talking points for potential or declared GOP
presidential candidates.

Netanyahu’s speech, in what has been described as “muscular and well-received,” by

Jonathan Allen of Politico, argued that a return to pre-1967 borders is unworkable,
“Jerusalem must never again be divided.”

However, the prime minister did provide some hope for a peace deal by saying, “The
status of the settlements will be decided only in negotiations. But we must also be
honest. So I am saying today something that should be said publicly by anyone
serious about peace. In any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements
will end up beyond Israel’s borders. The precise delineation of those borders must be
negotiated. We will be very generous on the size of a future Palestinian state.” In the
end, Mr. Netanyahu will not sacrifice Israeli security for the sake of negotiations with
the Palestinians.

Importantly, per tradition, the prime minister avoided publicly lecturing the president
like he did last week during their meeting at the White House. For some, Mr.
Netanyahu offered an olive branch to the president by suggesting during his speech to
Congress, “as President Obama said, the border will be different than the one that
existed on June 4, 1967.”

“We recognize that a Palestinian state must be big enough to be viable, independent
and prosperous. President Obama rightly referred to Israel as the homeland of the
Jewish people, just as he referred to the future Palestinian state as the homeland of the
Palestinian people. Jews from around the world have a right to immigrate to the
Jewish state. Palestinians from around the world should have a right to immigrate, if
they so choose, to a Palestinian state. This means that the Palestinian refugee problem
will be resolved outside the borders of Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu suggested.

Mr. Netanyahu addressed what is perhaps the largest stumbling block to negotiations
with the Palestinians, which is, the Fatah and Hamas power-sharing agreement must
be abandoned by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “Hamas remains committed
to Israel’s destruction and to terrorism. They have a charter. That charter not only calls
for the obliteration of Israel, but says ‘kill the Jews wherever you find them’. Hamas’
leader condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden and praised him as a holy warrior.
Now again I want to make this clear. Israel is prepared to sit down today and
negotiate peace with the Palestinian Authority. I believe we can fashion a brilliant
future of peace for our children. But Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian
government backed by the Palestinian version of Al Qaeda,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Israel has traditionally enjoyed wide bipartisan support in Congress. As such, many
Senators and Congressman were caught off guard by the president’s calls for a return
to pre-1967 borders. Publicly many have broken with the president in offering
steadfast support to Israel. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told AIPAC
attendees, “The place where negotiating will happen must be at the negotiating table
— and nowhere else.” Mr. Reid continued, “Those negotiations…will not happen —
and their terms will not be set — through speeches or in the streets or in the media.”
And Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-PA) told AIPAC attendees, that Israel’s borders “must
be determined by parties on the ground.”

GOP candidates for president, not surprisingly, sensing an opening to attack the
president, have jumped at the opportunity. “Today President Barack Obama has again
indicated that his policy towards Israel is to blame Israel first,” Rep. Michele
Bachmann (R-MN) said in a statement. “The most dangerous speech ever made by an
American president for the survival of Israel,” said former House Speaker Newt
Gingrich. “The current administration needs to come to terms with its confused and
dangerous foreign policy soon, as clarity and security are the necessary conditions of
any serious and coherent American set of policies,” Rick Santorum said in a statement.
And, Mitt Romney said of the speech, “It is disrespectful of Israel for America to
dictate negotiating terms to our ally,” adding, “It is not appropriate for the president
to dictate the terms.”

The GOP, heading into 2012, are in a particularly tough spot politically. The president
has added thousands of additional American troops in Afghanistan, ordered the
mission that resulted in Osama bin Laden’s death and ordered American ships and
warplanes to participate in the Libyan no-fly zone. These factors have undercut the
argument that President Obama, and the Democrats, are weak on national defense.

The controversy over Obama’s pre-1967 remarks and very public displays of loyalty
for Israel at AIPAC, highlight the unique place that that Israel holds with current and
former lawmakers. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argued in their 2007 book The
Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy that “serious candidates for the highest office in
the land will go to considerable lengths to express their deep personal commitment to
one foreign country-Israel-as well as their determination to maintain unyielding U.S.
support for the Jewish state.”

Mearsheimer and Walt continue, “None of the candidates is likely to criticize Israel in
any significant way or suggest that the United States ought to pursue a more
evenhanded policy in the region. Any who do will probably fall by the wayside.”

Democratic and Republican criticisms of Obama’s call for a return to pre-1967 borders
have forced the administration to lobby Israel’s backers and the American Jewish
community. The initial aim of the administration is to portray Obama as a firm backer
of Israel. Part of this effort will be a public push by top Democrats like Rep. Debbie
Wasserman Schultz (R-FL), the new Chairwoman of the Democratic National
Community, that Obama is still a friend of Israel. Wasserman Schultz said in a written
statement, “As a Jewish member of Congress who cares deeply about preserving Israel
as a Jewish, democratic state, I am proud that President Obama spoke forcefully about
continuing the United States’ strong and stalwart support of Israel.”

Obama also relies on the advice of AIPAC’s President Lee Rosenberg and soon to be
former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
Organizations, Alan Solow. Their efforts will be to shore up support in the American
Jewish community heading into the 2012 election cycle.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech before Congress offers a way forward. Netanyahu
avoided directly criticizing the president and offered some support for his effort to
revive the stalled peace talks. Additionally, Netanyahu acknowledged that that
president explicitly avoided calling for an exact return to pre-1967 borders.

Importantly, Mr. Netanyahu’s speech and lack of support in Congress for Obama’s
peace plan clearly indicate that peace negotiations will be implicitly between the
Israelis and the Palestinians and the U.S. will have less of an influence than in year’s

John Lyman is the Editor-in-Chief of Foreign Affairs Journal.