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Friday, May 20, 2011

Obama Presses Israel to Compromise for Peace

Seeing to “capture a moment of epochal change in the Arab world,” Barak Obama delivered a foreign policy speech on May 19, 2011 in which, according to the New York Times, he sought “to break the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” by “setting out a new starting point for negotiations.” In particular, he suggested that the Israelis go back to the 1967 borders, adjusted somewhat to account for settlements on the West Bank. Meeting with Obama on the following day, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “We can’t go back” to the 1967 borders, according to MSNBC.com.

                            Jim Young / Reuters

Before the president’s speech, according to the New York Times, Netanyahu “held an angry phone conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton” to demand that the president’s references to 1967 borders be cut. White House officials said that nothing was changed from Israeli pressure. In spite of the billions in aid to Israel from the U.S., the Israeli government had ignored the president’s request that settlements be halted—only to reject the 1967 borders proposal.  Given the position of Israel in the Middle East and its financial support from the U.S., the Israeli government’s rejection of the American proposals is perplexing. In fact, the refusals, as well as the pressure, could be taken as presumptuous, given Israel’s intransience in negotiating with the Palestinians.

So why, one might ask, didn’t the American president freeze aid to Israel? Although Jews in the U.S. are only about 2% of the total population, as donors to political candidates and the Democratic Party, the Jewish influence is disproportionate. Congress would hardly support real pressure on Israel, so realistically the president’s hand was probably tied.

In fact, I would not be surprised if Netanyahu had threatened Obama that if he kept the 1967 border proposal in his speech, he would lose Florida in 2012. It would be unfortunate if Americans who happen to be Jewish would put another country before their own in voting for president. In fact, I submit that it is in the Jewish interest, whether in Florida or Israel, that additional pressure be applied to Israel so a comprehensive peace deal may be achieved. Indeed, the reaction to the speech in the E.U. was that finally the U.S. Government was standing up to Israel.  A spokesperson for E.U. foreign policy minister Catherine Ashton said she "warmly welcomes President Obama's confirmation that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with the mutually agreed swaps, with secured and recognized borders on both sides," according to Zawya.com. Perhaps the E.U. and U.S. could combine forces to pressure Israel to comrpromise.

However, was making a proposal not to Israel’s liking standing up to the Israelis? I contend that the most intractable problem in the Middle East requires more than words. Accordingly, President Obama should find the will to put money behind his words. Specifically, he should give the Israeli government a deadline for a peace deal, after which American aid would be frozen. If Congress’s approval is necessary, the president should make the recommendation, agreeing to take the heat. 

Coming off his victory over Osama Bin Laden, Obama has some political capital to burn, and he should not be afraid of retaliation from Americans who happen to be Jewish—whom I would think would be against occupation wherever it is going on, given the history of Jewish suffering under occupation. Surely Jewish Americans realize that two wrongs do not make a right, and, moreover, that Israel’s future will not be secured until it compromises with those whom it is occupying. Borne of occupied resistance, the United States itself ought to be for the occupied rather than the occupiers, and Jewish Americans are part of the United States, are they not?

In any case, the way to win a presidential election is to keep one’s eyes on the prize rather than deferring in order not to offend particular interest groups. Paradoxically, if winning re-election is the predominant factor in every major presidential decision, the likelihood of a win is diminished accordingly because there are inevitably costs borne more by some than others as a leader puts his money where his mouth is in order to achieve any truly worthwhile accomplishment. Relatedly, a benefit of a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy is that in the former representatives have a period of time insulating them from the immediate passions of the people so they can go out on a limb to bring home the bacon that might involve a bit of discomfort.


Mark Lander and Steven Lee Myers, “Obama sees ’67 Borders as Starting Point for Peace Deal,” The New York Times, May 20, 2011.