Barack Obama’s speech on the Middle East lasted for forty minutes, but did it say anything new? Not exactly, although it did reinstate an old rule that had been abandoned. Two years after the American president’s much-ballyhooed speech in Cairo promised a new relationship with the Muslim world, not much has changed in American policy – but a great deal has changed in the Arab world.
Obama angered Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu by calling for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement consisting of two states “with permanent borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps (of territory).” It was a return to what was the long-standing American position until former US president George W. Bush changed it in 2004. Netanyahu’s office immediately issued a furious response.
"Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of US commitments made to Israel in 2004....Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines, which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centres in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines."
By “Judea and Samaria” Netanyahu meant the West Bank, i.e. 90 percent of the land that the Palestinians still clung to after the 1948 war. The West Bank has been occupied by the Israeli army since the 1967 war, and Israel has built so many “settlements” on it that almost 20 percent of the population of the West Bank is now Jewish.
Bush said in 2004 that the settlements could stay, even though that made the concept of a Palestinian state completely infeasible. (The settlements control more than a third of the land in the West Bank.) But US policy on the issue is now back to what it was before Bush.
Some settlements might be allowed to stay, but only if the Palestinian state were compensated with land of equivalent value by Israel. (That’s what the “mutually agreed swaps” referred to.) Moreover, the “1967 lines” mean that the United States will not back Israel’s insistence that its army remains in the Jordan valley, along the border between the promised Palestinian state and Jordan.
Netanyahu’s coalition government would instantly collapse if he agreed to any of this, so he wouldn’t agree even if Obama twisted his arm very hard. In any case, there was no hint in the speech that Obama was going to bring serious pressure on Israel to change its position.
So there has been a rhetorical return to long-standing US policy after the Bush aberration, but no evidence that Obama will push the “peace process” forward. As far as the democratic revolutions of the “Arab spring” are concerned, he gave them warm verbal support – but only so long as they don’t damage American interests. There was, for example, not a single mention of Saudi Arabia in his speech.
And for all of Obama’s rhetoric about how wonderful the revolutions are, it was clear that he had little idea how big the transformation in the Middle East actually is. Particularly with regard to the Israeli -Palestinian dispute, the future will not be like the past.
We had a foretaste of that a week ago, when thousands of Palestinian demonstrators commemorating the anniversary of the “nakba” (disaster), the expulsion of their people in 1948 from what is now Israel, surged up against Israel’s borders, and in one place actually breached them. About a dozen of them were killed, although they were mostly non-violent, but this was something new – and we will be seeing a lot more of it.
The issue of the Palestinian “refugees” of 1948 has been on a back burner for a long time, with Israel adamant that the vast majority of them must never return as that would dilute Israel’s Jewishness. Besides, says the Israeli government, they fled voluntarily.
That was always a bad argument. Israeli historians long ago discredited the idea that the flight of the Palestinian population was voluntary, and in any case it doesn’t matter. Under international law, if people flee their homes during a war, they are legally entitled to return to those homes when the fighting ends.
For fifty years, Israel has successfully kept the refugees (and their descendants) out, and by and large the international community has accepted it. But now the Palestinians, emboldened by the non-violent spread of popular rule elsewhere in the Arab world, are not just saying they have the right to return. They are acting on it.
Israel will never consent to this, but if Palestinians go on trying to cross the border, despite the fact that some will get killed each time, then Arab opinion will be firmly on their side. So will the newly democratic governments of the Arab world – and other Arab regimes that are just trying to stay ahead of public anger. Israel will also find itself increasingly isolated in the wider world, especially if it continues to use violence.
This is just one example of how much has changed in the Middle East in the past few months, and American policy has not even begun to take account of it. Obama is trying, but he will have to run much faster to keep up.