One problem with the Middle East conflict is that for the most part, people and politicians have a strong opinion about it, but their opinion on the conflict often far outweighs their knowledge of the situation. It starts with the wording and stances, which by now depend on such small nuances that you have to know the fine art of interpretation in order to know how to understand them. A good example of this is Barack Obama's Middle East speech. This article is an interpretation of the meaning behind it.
There is a nice passage about the frozen language of the Middle East conflict in Volume I of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs. Kissinger was U.S. secretary of state in the mid-1970s. In his memoirs, he writes about his first experiences in this field: “When I entered office I knew little of the Middle East. I had never visited any Arab country; I was not familiar with the liturgy of Middle East negotiations. The first time I heard one of the staple formulas of the region's diplomacy was at a dinner at the British Embassy in February 1969. Someone invoked the sacramental language of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, mumbling about the need for a just and lasting peace within secure and recognized borders. I thought the phrase so platitudinous that I accused the speaker of pulling my leg. It was a mistake I was not to repeat. By the end of my time in office I had become like all other old Middle East hands; word had become reality, form and substance had merged. I was immersed in all the ambiguities, passions, and frustrations of that maddening, heroic, and exhilarating region which was enough to drive you crazy.”
The Middle East has been driving me crazy for more than 20 years now. But as somebody who was forced to deal with the wording and nuances of Middle East policy out of necessity, I was surprised about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s temperamental reaction to Obama’s speech, in particular, the part of the speech that said that the peace agreement should be based on the 1967 lines with changes to the frontier lines that will be agreed to by both sides. After all, not only has this been the actual basis for cooperation for years now, forming a foundation for peace talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian National Authority, but it was also George W. Bush’s stance in his letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Israelis wanted to ensure their retreat from the Gaza Strip with this letter.
At the time, Bush wrote: “… it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949 … It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.” Therefore, even Bush used the 1949 cease-fire lines — also known as the “Green Line” or the 1967 lines before the Six Day War — as a point of reference for a peace settlement. Bush also emphasized the necessity of a land exchange to incorporate settlement areas into Israel for demographic and security concerns.
Incidentally, the Palestinians saw this quotation as the only actual concession by a president who they otherwise considered to be very Israel-friendly. According to the “Palestine Papers,” Condoleezza Rice accepted this principle as a basis for boundary negotiations behind closed doors — at least after the Annapolis Conference in 2007. When Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, then urged the Obama administration to make this agreement public in 2009, he was told by the U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell that they were under Israeli pressure not to do this. A short time later, he warned Erekat: “Don't use this because it can hurt you.” Erekat angrily replied: “But this was an agreement with Sec. Rice ... For God's sake, she said to put it on the record.” Erekat obviously does not want to believe that Obama wants to go back on “perhaps our only achievement with the Bush administration.” Thus, Obama was only backing up a concession made by the Bush administration when he said: “… 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 problem with Obama’s speech is not that it has re-enforced a principle that was already the basis for the negotiations between both sides. If anything, a slight change of direction toward a pro-Palestine stance can be read in the passages of the speech where Obama remained vague. For example, regarding Hamas, Obama said: “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.”
For a text that has been through many scrupulous editing processes, it seems odd that it was not Obama who said that the U.S. has a problem with this Hamas policy; it was Israel. For all intents and purposes, at this point in the “sacramental language” of Middle East policy, Obama should have applied the Middle East Quartet’s three principles to this question again: Negotiate with Hamas only if it actually recognizes Israel’s existence, renounce the use of force and recognize the current agreements between the Palestinian National Authority and Israel. The fact that Obama has not done this suggests that the U.S. no longer wants to take liberties with these principles in order to get Hamas on board. However, in fairness, it should also be mentioned that Obama made up for this omission in his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) a few days later.
Obama was just as vague when referring to the question of refugees. Israel considers the return of Palestinian refugees to Israeli territory to be akin to settlement activity; they see it as the central grand delusion of Palestinian discourse. When discussing this subject, Obama only said that the frontier line should be defined first and the question of refugees should be considered later. The honesty that he used with Israel when answering the question of the frontier line that day should have also required him to be honest and tell the Palestinians that refugees will not be able to have a general right of return to Israel. Thus, once again, the president showed the tendency of siding with the Palestinians.
However, the most concerning aspect is that both Netanyahu and Obama are continuing with their disastrous policy of confrontation that has existed for the past few years. It must be assumed that Netanyahu has exaggerated the border conflict in order to hold his coalition together in Israel. He is therefore looking for a fight with the most powerful man in the world because of his domestic policy, which can only damage his country. If Obama wins the next presidential election — which is entirely likely — and thus no longer needs to consider Israel-friendly voters in his Middle East policy, the effects on the relationship between the U.S. and Israel could be unimaginable.
However, Obama is also persisting. Until now, his Middle East policy has been one single disaster. He has fostered the European myth that the Middle East conflict is the main problem that the region suffers from. That has always been a hunch and does not reflect reality. But this fable has been completely destroyed by the Arab revolutions. The protesters have made it clear that the development that was blocked by dictatorships is the fundamental problem of this part of the world and that they no longer want to see the Middle East conflict taken hostage. Yet Obama is still carrying on as if nothing has happened. What is worse still is that there is much evidence that supports starting to manage the conflict while waiting for a new accommodating policy to emerge in the region, precisely because of the revolution and its uncertain outcome. Instead of this, Obama continues to encourage the Israeli government to make greater concessions than the Palestinians.
In doing so, Obama has further increased the mess that he made when he urged the Palestinians to commit to the maximum demands in the question of settlement. In an interview with Newsweek, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas described it as follows: “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump.” Obama made an enormous tactical error to embrace a demand that the Palestinians had previously never seen as a reason to refuse talks. But if the U.S. president publicly demands it, then the Palestinian president cannot shy away.
Mitchell's outburst on this subject in the “Palestine Papers” is also interesting: “You guys are now trying to come up with a history that Obama somehow invented the freeze. You and the Arabs have been calling for a freeze long before Obama. He did not pull it out of the air and impose it!” Apparently, the Obama administration had not understood one of the basic facts of Middle East policy at the time; namely, Arab politicians often say something different in public than what they actually mean. For example, this can be seen in the remarks made by Arab politicians about Iran in the WikiLeaks cables: They were publicly denouncing Israel and rarely talking about Iran, but the cables show that a coalition of interests has long existed between the moderate Arab regimes and Israel against Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.
However, it must have been clear to Obama that the Netanyahu government could not go on for much longer unless the governing coalition is broken up. Therefore, Obama has not only messed things up, he has also supported the Palestinian decision to violate the Oslo Accords and to declare Palestine a state in its own right at the U.N. General Assembly. However, his speech does not show that he has learned anything from this fiasco. He and Netanyahu continue to do everything possible to damage the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel. This is the real problem with Obama's speech on the Middle East and Netanyahu's reaction to it.