Obama’s strategy seems to have been heavily influenced by the advice of Israel-connected centrists such as Thomas Friedman. The occupation is bad, such informal advisers say, but it is a problem for Israelis and Palestinians to solve. Don’t push, don’t dictate, don’t “impose terms.” Friedman likes to add that the Israelis and Palestinians have to “want peace” more than Americans do. The apparent analogy is with two boys fighting on a playground, or two clans that must grow tired of fighting in order to make up. This analogy fails, however, where the fighters are radically unequal in size, strength, and equipment. It also loses its pertinence in a case where the umpire has already suffered serious injury from side-effects of the fight. And, according to authorities as diverse as Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus, the unresolved conflict of Israel and Palestine is the largest “root cause” of terrorism directed against the United States.
In confining himself on March 19 to general advice to the opposite sides he had hoped to bring together in 2009, Obama was begging off any personal or institutional engagement—such as the two years of shuttle diplomacy that ended on May 13 with the resignation of George Mitchell—in instigating discussions and arranging the terms for a Palestinian state. He warned vaguely against the utility of the coming Palestinian appeal to become a member of the United Nations. But he left no alternative but the slow work of time and reason and meditation on the example of America.
The explicit mention of 1967 borders may matter more than at first appeared from the overall shape of Obama’s speech. For this is the single point, drawn from the long history of negotiations, that Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition have sought to press out of view. “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation”: if that sentence, spoken by Obama on Thursday, is combined with deference to the 1967 lines as a basis for land swaps “mutually agreed upon,” it signifies a denial by the U.S. of any shred of legitimacy for the settler movement. (Netanyahu responded to this detail of the speech immediately by issuing a statement in Jerusalem to pronounce the 1967 borders “indefensible.”)
On the three major issues—-(1) borders, territory, and security; (2) the status of Jerusalem; and (3) the precise understanding of a Palestinian “right of return”-—Obama recommended to “the parties” that they begin with the first alone, since it is the easiest. Only then should they proceed to the less tractable problems: how much Jewish expansion will be allowed into Arab East Jerusalem, and under what united or divided sovereignty the city will exist; and how the right of return will be portioned out to deserving Palestinians, with due respect for the unexaggerated fears of Israelis.
Apart from the conscious decision to say the word 1967—which Netanyahu, as we later learned, had asked him to omit—Obama’s Middle East speech did not venture much. It confined itself to a safe and irreproachable generality. It was careful to make promises (chiefly monetary) that Obama himself would be able to keep. His customary abstractness showed in such locutions as the “contiguous” territory necessary for Palestinian independence. On December 10, 2010, in a major speech at the Saban Forum of the Brookings Institution, Hillary Clinton said it more sharply: “The land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean is finite, and both sides must know exactly which parts belong to each. They must agree to a single line drawn on a map that divides Israel from Palestine.” Everyone knows that a single line cannot be a broken line. Does everyone equally know that a “contiguous” state (a term of art in Middle East diplomacy) cannot be a discontinuous state? Obama has a way retreating into vagueness at just the points where clarity matters most.
The May 19 speech did not attempt to hide his dissatisfaction with the conduct of the Netanyahu government. Yet at the moment, Obama can find no way of exerting leverage against Netanyahu that will not hurt him more than Netanyahu, and hurt him in America—-especially with the reliable Jewish donors whom Republicans have been seeking to detach from the Democratic party with increasing urgency for the past three presidential elections. Pilgrimages to Israel by prominent Republicans such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, and the invitation to address Congress issued to Netanyahu by the majority leader Eric Cantor, suggest that this attempt has become a secret in plain view. . . .
The extreme hostility of Netanyahu’s reaction on a single point may have obscured how much he got substantively from Obama. For an unmistakable message was sent by omission in Obama’s speech at the state department—namely, that the administration has no present plan to broker talks between Israel and the Palestinian unity government. There was not a word about Gaza and only a spectator’s advice about the West Bank. Practically speaking, therefore, one more American president has been turned away from active engagement with the challenge of the occupation. No further pressure for an independent Palestine is likely to be initiated by the US before the 2012 presidential election.