Alan Dershowitz has a clear and vigorous oped in the Jerusalem Post today about the continuing missteps in President Obama’s thinking about the Israel-Palestine question, as revealed Wednesday in a joint press conference with UK PM David Cameron:
Here is what the president said: “It is going to require wrenching compromise from both sides. In the last decade, when negotiators have talked about how to achieve that outcome, there have been typically four issues that have been raised. One is the issue of what would the territorial boundaries of a new Palestinian state look like. Number two: how could Israel feel confident that its security needs would be met? Number three: how would the issue of Palestinian refugees be resolved; and number four, the issue of Jerusalem. The last two questions are extraordinarily emotional. They go deep into how the Palestinians and the Jewish people think about their own identities. Ultimately they are going to be resolved by the two parties. I believe that those two issues can be resolved if there is the prospect and the promise that we can actually get to a Palestinian state and a secure Jewish state of Israel.”
This recent statement clearly reveals the underlying flaw in Obama’s thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is no way that Israel can agree to borders without the Palestinians also agreeing to give up any claim to a “right of return.” As Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad Salaam once told me: each side has a major card to play and a major compromise to make; for Israel, that card is the West Bank, and the compromise is returning to the 1967 lines with agreed-upon adjustments and land swaps; for the Palestinians, that card is “the right of return,” and the compromise is an agreement that the Palestinian refugees will be settled in Palestine and not in Israel; in other words, that there will be no right to “return” to Israel.
President Obama’s formulation requires Israel to give up its card and to make a “wrenching compromise” by dismantling most of the West Bank settlements and ending its occupation of the West Bank. But it does not require the Palestinians to give up their card and to compromise on the right of return. That “extraordinarily emotional” issue is to be left to further negotiations only after the borders have been agreed to.
This temporal ordering – requiring Israel to give up the “territorial” card before the Palestinians even have to negotiate about the “return” card – is a non-starter for Israel and it is more than the Palestinians have privately asked for. Once again, President Obama, by giving the Palestinians more than they asked for, has made it difficult, if not impossible, for the Palestinians to compromise.
But it’s worse even than Prof Dershowitz says.
President Obama has publicly prejudged two of the four issues he has identified as key: borders and also security.
On borders, Obama has endorsed the 67 lines with swaps formula.
On security, Obama has decreed that Israel must evacuate all its security forces from the land assigned to the Palestinians – meaning that Israel must trust others to protect the Jordan Valley and the airspace over the West Bank highlands.
The only issues on which he has not opined are refugees and Jerusalem. The question naturally arises: does he envision a trade whereby the Palestinians surrender their demand for a “right of return” in exchange for Israel surrendering sovereignty over united Jerusalem?
If so, 3 thoughts:
1) American presidents have till now insisted that peace must be negotiated by the parties, rather than imposed by Washington. President Obama is departing from this major precedent – a huge change in US policy, and one full of risks. If the US dictates the peace, it’s hard for the US to avoid responsibility for enforcing the peace.
2) The President is asking the Israelis to place extraordinary confidence in the competence, will, and benign intentions of the future security forces of the future Palestinian state, perhaps backed by international peacekeepers. That request ignores i) the unbroken record of failure of international peacekeepers in the region dating back to 1967 and continuing to the travesties of the UN forces in Lebanon; ii) the Hamas-Fatah deal that brings the Islamist terrorist group into the center of Palestinian govt; and iii) the president’s own statement in his Thursday speech that Israel should be able to defend itself, by itself.
3) The Jerusalem-refugees deal implied by the president’s words in London asks Israel to exchange something it has and can enforce by itself – sovereignty over Jerusalem – for something the Palestinians do not have and cannot enforce – free entry of Palestinians into Israel. The Israelis might as well exchange Jerusalem for mining rights on the moon. The situation of Palestinian refugees is an issue left over, not from 1967, but from the war of 1947-49, a war started by Palestinian Arabs and then the Arab states, in violation of the UN partition decree. Even to raise the refugee issue gives the lie to the Palestinian claim to have accepted the existence of Israel. And lest we forget, that acceptance was a precondition for the starting of the very first round of the peace process back in 1993.
The Palestinian right of return is not the equivalent of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. It is the equivalent of Israeli claims to sovereignty over the East bank of the Jordan River, as promised by the League of Nations after the First World War … a claim impressive only to antiquarians and hyper-partisans.