Foreign Policy Blogs

The Speech

There is, of course, much commentary already on Obama’s Middle East speech.  Here are some assorted thoughts from me.

First, Obama stated unequivocal support for democracy, asserting that U.S. policy is to “support a set of universal rights” that includes “the right to choose your own leaders—whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.”  But on the popular movement in Palestine that resulted in a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, he didn’t express strong support but rather stated that the agreement “raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel.”  This reconciliation movement, though, as some have argued, can be considered part of the Arab Spring.  In March, popular demonstrations of tens of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza called for reconciliation.  And the legitimacy and legality of Abbas’ presidency has been in doubt since his term ended in January 2009.  So the movement toward Palestinian elections could be considered a triumph of democracy, though one that undoubtedly complicates U.S. Middle East policy.

Second, some (Rick Santorum, for instance) have accused Obama of rewarding terrorism.  Hamas struck a reconciliation deal with Fatah, and then Obama came out in support of Palestinian statehood based on the pre-1967 borders, so doesn’t this reward Hamas’ targeting of civilians?  But (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again), take a look at the 2008 RAND study on how terrorist groups end.  The study looks at 648 terrorist groups that existed between 1968 and 2006 and finds that, of the ones that ended, the most likely reason was that they were integrated into political processes.  In 2008, Hamas offered Israel a ten-year truce in return for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders.  And earlier this month, Hamas announced its support of a two-state solution.  There are many questions to grapple with.  The scope of the right of return, which Hamas strongly supports, and the nature of land swaps, which Hamas rejects, but the prospects for a settlement that involves Hamas are better than some suggest.

Third, this Ronald Reagan quote has been floating around:

In the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely ten miles wide at its narrowest point. The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again.

The quote showed up in a piece by Glenn Kessler about how Obama’s speech differed from those of his predecessors.  As Kessler notes, Obama’s expressed support for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders with land swaps was not a novel policy change, but the context in which he expressed it – a prepared speech delivered by a U.S. president – had not been done before.

But many people (see here and here, for instance) are using the Reagan quote to argue that Reagan was a better friend to Israel than Obama.  On borders, though, Reagan was pretty close to Obama.  Here’s what else Reagan had to say about borders in the same speech:

We base our approach squarely on the principle that the Arab-Israeli conflict should be resolved through the negotiations involving an exchange of territory for peace. This exchange is enshrined in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which is, in turn, incorporated in all its parts in the Camp David agreements. U.N. Resolution 242 remains wholly valid as the foundation-stone of America’s Middle East peace effort.

It is the United States’ position that – in return for peace – the withdrawal provision of Resolution 242 applies to all fronts, including the West Bank and Gaza.

Though Reagan, unlike Obama, took a firm stand on Jerusalem:

Finally, we remain convinced that Jerusalem must remain undivided, but its final status should be decided through negotiations.

In terms of territory, this is the more significant distinction between the two speeches.  But it’s interesting to note that the Israeli reaction to the Reagan Plan was vehement opposition, on the same level, if not more so, than current Israeli reaction to Obama’s speech.  And for the exact same reasons.  Here is Netanyahu’s response to Obama (from Haaretz):

“Israel appreciates President’s Obama commitment to peace,” Netanyahu said, but stressed that he expects Obama to refrain from demanding that Israel withdraw to “indefensible” 1967 borders “which will leave a large population of Israelis in Judea and Samaria and outside Israel’s borders.”

Here is Menachem Begin’s letter to Reagan after Reagan’s September 1982 speech:

What some call the ‘West Bank,’ Mr. President, is Judea and Samaria, and this simple historic truth will never change. There are cynics who deride history. They may continue their derision as they wish, but I will stand by the truth. And the truth is that millennia ago there was a Jewish Kingdom of Judea and Samaria where our kings knelt to God, where our prophets brought forth the vision of eternal peace, where we developed a rather rich civilization which we took with us in our hearts and in our minds, on our long global trek for over 18 centuries; and, with it, we came back home. By aggressive war, by invasion, King Abdullah conquered parts of Judea and Samaria in 1948; and in a war of most legitimate self-defense in 1967, after being attacked by King Hussein, we liberated, with God’s help, that portion of our homeland.

Geography and history have ordained that Judea and Samaria be mountainous country and that two-thirds of our population dwell in the coastal plain dominated by those mountains. From them you can hit every city, every town, each township and village and, last but not least, our principal airport in the plain below.

Mr. President, you and I chose for the last two years to call our countries ‘friends and allies.’ Such being the case, a friend does not weaken a friend, an ally does not put his ally in jeopardy. This would be the inevitable consequence were the ‘positions’ [Begin refers here to the Reagan Plan which called on Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines] transmitted to me on August 31, 1982, to become reality. I believe they won’t. ‘For Zion’s sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest.’ (Isaiah 62).

The Reagan-Obama dichotomy is not as distinct as some are claiming.