President Barack Obama has once again scored on his own goal. (For non-sports fans, that's a bad thing.) Intending to advance the resumption of meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he has inadvertently made it more unlikely that the Palestinians will engage in serious peace talks with Israel.
On June 4, 2009, President Barack Obama made his famous Cairo speech, his first effort at advancing U.S. relations with the Islamic and Arab world. In the course of that speech, although it included several true and positive statements about Israel, he said the following fateful words:
"At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop." [Emphasis added.]
In fairness to President Obama, the illegitimacy of Israeli settlements in Yehuda and Shomron ["the West Bank"] is a long-held (and in my view wrongly held) American diplomatic position. However, the cessation of Israeli settlement activity had never before been viewed as a prerequisite to the resumption of final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. From the moment that President Obama uttered the words, "It is time for these settlements to stop," the Palestinian Authority adopted the position that the cessation of all Israeli settlement activity was a precondition for Palestinian Authority participation in peace negotiations with Israel. And that cessation included, in the Palestinian view, construction within Jerusalem and even construction within the boundaries of existiing settlements. The result--there have been no meaningful Israeli-Arab peace negotiations since June 4, 2009.
Now President Obama has not only repeated the same mistake, he has aggravated it. On May 19, 2011, at the State Department, President Obama outlined his Administration's comprehensive Middle East policy. When he reached the subject of Israeli-Arab peace negotiations, he said many positive things, including a reaffirmation of U.S. friendship with Israel and the U.S. commitment to Israeli security. He even said the following about a transitional period following the creation of a Palestinian state:
"The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. The duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated." [Emphasis added.]
But before that in his speech he uttered the following fateful words:
"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."
Again, I would argue, that statement reflects long-standing American policy, and does not require a pullback to the June 4, 1967 borders of Israel. At least that is how the statement should have been parsed and publicized by the Israeli government. Instead--and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu certainly shares some blame for this outcome due to his clumsy reaction, along with Republican pundits and politicians who wanted to portray President Obama as a betrayor of Israel and American media that wanted to promote the appearance of a U.S.-Israel split for its newsworthiness--his statement was widely interpreted as requiring Israel to accept the June 4, 1067 borders.
Of course, given that opening, the Palestinian Authority pounced. JTA reports:
"Palestinian officials said they would not resume peace negotiations unless Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepts President Obama's 1967 border guidelines.
"'If Netanyahu agrees, we shall turn over a new leaf,' Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator in peace talks, was quoted as saying Sunday in Ynet. 'If he doesn't, then there is no point talking about a peace process. We're saying it loud and clear.'
"Erekat, a member of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party central committee, repeated similar statements to the KUNA Kuwaiti news agency and others that were rebroadcast on Israel Radio.
"'Once Netanyahu says that the negotiations will lead to a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, then everything will be set,' Erekat said, according to the Palestinian news agency WAFA."
Note that Mr. Erekat's statement omitted President Obama's reference to "mutually agreed swaps."
So now, as a direct result of two speeches by President Obama, the officially stated Palestinian Authority position is that peace negotiations cannot resume unless and until Israel first agrees to (1) a full cessation of all settlement activity, and (2)a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. Of course, no responsible Israeli government would make those concessions in advance of any negotiations. So once again, the President's words have made the resumption of peace negotiations less likely.
At some point President Obama may come to understand that Palestinian leaders cannot appear to their own people to be less tough on Israel than the White House. Until then, please Mr. President, no more speeches on Middle East peace.