Netanyahu's Outrage at Obama's Middle East Speech is Synthetic
Barack Obama's citation of Israel's 1967 borders may have triggered a political storm about the Middle East peace process – but it is more about Israeli anxieties and spin than a substantive US policy shift.
The key phrase in Obama's 5,400-word address on Thursday was: "The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognised borders are established for both states."
Scrutinising the small print, several analysts argued that the president had formalised US support for what had previously been only an aspiration.
"The US took a descriptive position and turned it into a prescriptive position, setting new terms of reference," suggested David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But American presidents from Bill Clinton onwards have used identical language. It was the basis for talks between Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000. It also formed the basis for George W Bush's talks with Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
Binyamin Netanyahu's outraged rejection of Obama's words thus appeared both tactical and synthetic. The accompanying notion of "mutually agreed swaps" allows in principle for Israel to retain settlement blocs it has built illegally in the West Bank and around East Jerusalem. The Palestine Papers showed just how far PLO negotiators were prepared to go in 2008 in accepting those "facts on the ground".
The row reflects Netanyahu's dislike of Obama as well as mounting alarm that Israel's diplomatic position is being eroded by a combination of international impatience and the changes of the "Arab spring" – especially in an Egypt now pursuing a less pro-American foreign policy.
Netanyahu's anger would have been genuine had Obama insisted simply on a return to the 1967 borders. That would have been a major shift in US policy.
On the Israeli right, the 1967 lines are sometimes described emotively as "Auschwitz borders" – implying that they are so difficult to defend that they risk a second Holocaust. Those borders, or more precisely ceasefire lines, were where the fighting stopped at the end of the 1948 war which accompanied Israel's independence and the defeat and flight the Palestinians call their "nakba", or "catastrophe".
UN resolution 242 of 1967 calls for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces "from territories occupied in the recent conflict". The absence of a definite article has sometimes been interpreted as suggesting that Israel could keep some of those territories. But another the key element, also carefully referenced by Obama, is "secure and recognised borders" for both Israel and a Palestinian state.
Close reading of Obama's speech reveals pro-Israeli positions on two crucial points. He rejected the Palestinian initiative to win recognition at the UN general assembly this September. He also called on the Islamist movement Hamas to recognise Israel after reaching its reconciliation agreement with Fatah. "Netanyahu could not have asked for more," was the conclusion of Aluf Benn in Haaretz, one of Israel's most astute political commentators.