May 23, 2011 | Commentary Magazine

Five Predictable Consequences from Obama’s Mideast Speech

President Obama’s speech on the Middle East last Thursday has already had five predictable consequences:

First, the President’s closing remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ensured that everything else he said on the Middle East would largely go unnoticed. Everybody is discussing his remark about “June 4, 1967, lines,” hardly anyone is speaking about freedom across the Arab world.

Second, his departure from long-standing U.S. policy regarding final status issues and the most explicit enunciation of Obama’s repudiation of the Bush-Sharon April 2004 understandings has caused a very public disagreement with Israel—the worst possible way for the President to persuade Israel to deliver those “hard choices” the President called for in his speech.

Third, the President has yet again given Europe a free pass to chastise Israel as the only obstacle to peace in the Middle East. This morning’s statements from the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council attendees border on the usual stupidity. Carl Bildt, for example, derided the notion that the 1967 lines are indefensible by saying, in an echo of European interwar thinking, that “the only defense that is possible is peace.”

Fourth, the speech has now given the Palestinians another excuse not to return to negotiations. As former Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said in response, unless and until Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu accepts the 1967 lines as a territorial basis for a Palestinian state, there shall be no negotiations. This means that the speech has boosted, not hindered, Palestinian efforts to pursue their goals unilaterally, since they can now invoke the authority of the U.S. President.

My colleagues here at Contentions have dissected all of the above wisely, insightfully, and diligently, and there is no need to add, except for a fifth point. The president may have thought it clever to decouple the border and statehood issues from Jerusalem and refugees in order to ensure that a Palestinian state can be established soon without prejudging the core identity issues at the heart of the conflict. That is why, after delineating his vision for Palestinian statehood and Israeli security based on the 1967 lines he added:

    I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain:  the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Could the White House tell the world where the Old City of Jerusalem, with all the holy sites that make the issue both wrenching and emotional, is located with regard to the June 4, 1967, lines? And where is the rest of East Jerusalem located with regard to those same lines? Could it be that the term East refers precisely to the fact that it is located “east” of the June 4, 1967 lines? Or is it somehow hovering above, like the Third Temple according to Talmudic traditions, and waiting to descend when the Messiah comes?

I suspect that someone was too clever by half here—and thought that the President could eat his cake and have it too by stating U.S. support for the June 4, 1967, lines while leaving Jerusalem for later.

One more reason why President Obama’s speech was very much in line with all his previous speeches—strong on the rhetoric, weak and confused on the policy.

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