The Israel debate

A friend emailed me shortly after President Obama’s important speech about the Middle East last month:
Have been receiving only negative reaction to Obama’s recent speech suggesting Israel give consideration to reverting to pre ’67 borders in their negotiations. Seems absurd to me given that would leave Israel mostly indefensible. What is going on with Obama? Enlighten me.

I’m by no means a Middle East expert, so I suspect my friend asked my opinion because of my work for Obama in the 2008 campaign.

I responded to my friend (at length) and thought nothing more of it until I realized that my local paper, the Naples Daily News, has printed not one, not two, but three guest commentaries similarly criticizing the President’s position in response to an earlier commentary with which I agreed.   (The Pro-Obama commentary: Michael Rubner: “Middle East Peace – Why American Jewry should support Obama and reject Netanyahu.”  The anti-Obama commentaries: Jerrold L. Sobel:  “The Reason American Jewry Should Not Support President Obama,” Lee Levin:  “Israel can’t be secure with ’67 borders” and Gerald A. Honigman:  “No Return To The Auschwitz Lines.”)

Clearly this is an important issue for the American Jewish community.  In fact, it’s a “third rail” issue that most politicians (and many American Jews) who support the President’s position would prefer not to touch.  But I have an opinion, and I write a political blog … so I thought I would share my response  to my friend:

Dear friend,

The first thing I would say is that you, like many (including – at first, but subsequently walked back – Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu) only quoted the first part of Obama’s comment about the borders, but not the full statement.  Here’s the part of the speech in question, with the white-hot sentence and other (in my opinion) important parts about the borders in green, and other important parts in blue:
Let me conclude by talking about another cornerstone of our approach to the region, and that relates to the pursuit of peace.

For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region. For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own. Moreover, this conflict has come with a larger cost to the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people.

For over two years, my administration has worked with the parties and the international community to end this conflict, building on decades of work by previous administrations. Yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks. The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on and on and on, and sees nothing but stalemate. Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now.

I disagree. At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever. That’s certainly true for the two parties involved.

For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.

As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it’s important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.

The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself. A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people -– not just one or two leaders — must believe peace is possible. The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome.  The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.

Now, ultimately, it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them — not by the United States; not by anybody else. But endless delay won’t make the problem go away. What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows — a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel. 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. 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. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself -– by itself -– against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security. 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. And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.

These principles provide a foundation for negotiations.  Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. 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.

Now, let me say this: Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table. In particular, 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? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.

I recognize how hard this will be. Suspicion and hostility has been passed on for generations, and at times it has hardened. But I’m convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past. We see that spirit in the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas, who helped start an organization that brought together Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones. That father said, “I gradually realized that the only hope for progress was to recognize the face of the conflict.” We see it in the actions of a Palestinian who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza. “I have the right to feel angry,” he said. “So many people were expecting me to hate. My answer to them is I shall not hate. Let us hope,” he said, “for tomorrow.”

That is the choice that must be made -– not simply in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but across the entire region -– a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future. It’s a choice that must be made by leaders and by the people, and it’s a choice that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife.

So the point is – Obama did NOT suggest “Israel give consideration to reverting to pre ’67 borders.”  He said those borders should be the starting point but adjusted “with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

Many of the reviews I’ve read of this part of the speech say that this is something that has been acknowledged by both Democratic and Republican administrations for years but that it has been a “third-rail” to say it out loud. 

But Obama did say it.  Why? In his words:

[P]recisely because of our friendship, it’s important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.

Seems indisputable to me.

Another comment – My husband and I were in Israel on a trip organized by our temple and led by our rabbi in 2004 or so.  Among the officials we met with was one who explained at length the dilemma posed by the differing rates of population growth of the Jews and the non-Jews within Israel’s current borders.  He said it is only a matter of time before Jews become the minority within the borders, and that in view of this, only two options really exist: (1) a two-state solution or (2) apartheid. 

It was the first time I’d heard that, but since then I’ve heard it quite often.  While I’ll be the first to admit Wikipedia is not perfect, this Wiki excerpt seems reasonable to me (see the Wiki article for footnotes linking to underlying sources):

In the northern part of Israel the percentage of Jewish population is declining. The increasing population of Arabs within Israel, and the majority status they hold in two major geographic regions — the Galilee and the Triangle — has become a growing point of open political contention in recent years. Dr. Wahid Abd Al-Magid, the editor of Al-Ahram Weekly’s “Arab Strategic Report” predicts that “The Arabs of 1948 (i.e. Arabs who stayed within the bounds of Israel and accepted citizenship) may become a majority in Israel in 2035, and they will certainly be the majority in 2048.” Among Arabs, Muslims have the highest birth rate, followed by Druze, and then Christians.  The phrase demographic threat (or demographic bomb) is used within the Israeli political sphere to describe the growth of Israel’s Arab citizenry as constituting a threat to its maintenance of its status as a Jewish state with a Jewish demographic majority.  …..

Several politicians have viewed the Arabs in Israel as a security and demographic threat.

The term “demographic bomb” was famously used by Benjamin Netanyahu in 2003 when he noted that if the percentage of Arab citizens rises above its current level of about 20 percent, Israel will not be able to maintain a Jewish demographic majority. Netanyahu’s comments were criticized as racist by Arab Knesset members and a range of civil rights and human rights organizations, such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.  Even earlier allusions to the “demographic threat” can be found in an internal Israeli government document drafted in 1976 known as the Koenig Memorandum, which laid out a plan for reducing the number and influence of Arab citizens of Israel in the Galilee region.

So what that says to me is that there is a slowly ticking demographic time bomb in Israel that the majority of Israelis don’t have the political will to deal with.  (Sort of like our own problem with entitlements.)  Everyone knows it exists, but most just want to keep kicking the can down the road.

The first step in dealing with a problem is putting it in to words, openly and honestly.  Seems to me Obama showed great courage by doing so in his speech.

One final thought, and it’s obliquely referred to in Obama’s speech: whether with the post or the pre ’67 borders, given technological advances, Israel will never really be as defensible as it would like.  It’s a small country either way.  Traditional warfare is being replaced by chemical weapons, computer viruses, biological weapons, and nuclear weapons.  I think Israel needs to give the argument about the need for defensible borders some serious re-consideration.

So those are my thoughts on this highly-charged and important subject.  I’d be interested in yours.
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