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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What happened to our defensible borders?

Rick Richman reports that US Special Middle East envoy George Mitchell will be arriving here after the New Year and that he will have a letter of assurances for Israel. The letter will probably track a statement made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month.
We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirementsand the Israeli goal of a Jewish state .
Rick finds that wording troubling.
Letters of assurance have previously played an important part in the peace process. In 1997, Secretary of State Christopher wrote to Israel to assure it that the U.S. supported “defensible borders” for Israel as the conclusion of the peace process. In 2004, President Bush reassured Israel of the “steadfast commitment” of the U.S. to defensible borders. In his “Let Me Be Clear” address to AIPAC in 2008, Barack Obama stated that “any agreement with the Palestinian people must preserve Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, with secure, recognized and defensible borders,” reflecting the longstanding U.S. commitment.

The absence of any reference to “defensible borders” in Secretary Clinton’s statement is thus both conspicuous and troubling, particularly because the administration has repeatedly refused this year to answer whether it considers itself bound by the Bush letter. Even the reference to “secure and recognized” borders is expressed in Clinton’s statement simply as an Israeli “goal” rather than as a U.S. commitment.

There is a significant difference between the prior letters given to Israel and the new “letter of guarantees” that may be given to the Palestinians. The letters to Israel were provided in exchange for tangible concessions: withdrawals from significant territories in Hebron and Gaza. They were parts of negotiated deals; they were not mere statements of policy subject to change. The possible “letter of guarantee” for the Palestinians, on the other hand, is simply for an agreement to resume negotiations, with no Palestinian concession on any issue – and on a basis that omits any reference to defensible borders.
I find a lot of other things about Clinton's statement troubling, but I am not troubled by all the same things that trouble Rick. Let's go through it line by line. There's some good news here as well.

First phrase: "We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome...." Are the good-faith negotiations between the parties or are other persons at the table? It's inconceivable to me that Clinton doesn't envision the US being at the table, but "mutually agree on an outcome" is clearly a reference to the parties. That means she's rejecting imposing a 'solution' or just sending in the troops to create one (sorry Andrew and Samantha), and that's good news.

Second phrase: "which ends the conflict..." That's also good news for two reasons. First, Israel cannot agree to any deal which does not end the conflict. Second, the 'Palestinians' won't agree to any deal which ends the conflict, because the conflict is their raison d'etre. That statement kills the deal right there if it's part of both letters.

Third phrase: "reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps,..." I'm less bothered than Rick is by the reference later on to an 'Israeli goal,' because the 'Palestinian' formulation includes a 'Palestinian goal' and not a US commitment. If the letter to the 'Palestinians' dovetails with that language, that's good news. But it also means the 'Palestinians' are unlikely to come to the table. They will likely demand as a precondition to coming to the table that the US and Israel commit to Israel returning to the 1967 lines (or the 1949 armistice lines as I prefer to call them). That's not going to happen.

The reference to an 'independent and viable' state is also less troublesome than it could have been. 'Independent' doesn't equate with militarized (see Andorra). Moreover, there's a key word missing here: contiguous. I have argued many times on this blog that if a 'Palestinian' state is contiguous, then by definition the Jewish state would be neither contiguous nor secure. Thus Clinton's omission of the word contiguous from her formulation, if tracked in the letter to the 'Palestinians,' is significant.

The phrase "based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps" is something less than the 2004 Bush letter that made a specific commitment to the 'settlement blocs' remaining in Israel, but is more than Clinton's previous total rejection of that letter. It also would not preclude the administration adopting that letter in the future. And if the 'Palestinians' dig in their heels (as the Syrians have done) and insist on an Israeli commitment to return to the 1967 lines as a precondition to starting negotiations, they won't be coming to the table and Clinton is signaling that she won't support that.

Fourth phrase: "and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state"As I noted above, I am less bothered by the fact that this is phrased as an "Israeli goal" because the 'Palestinian' side of the statement is phrased as a 'Palestinian goal.' The use of the term 'Jewish state,' especially along with 'ends the conflict,' is important because it signals to the 'Palestinians' that the United States will not support a 'right of return.' If this administration won't support a 'right of return' it's not likely that any future American administration will support one either. Will the 'Palestinians' come to the table on that basis?

Fifth phrase: "with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements" Rick is bothered that Clinton didn't say 'defensible' here and I share his concern. On the other hand, how could borders be 'secure' and 'meet Israeli security requirements' (as determined by Israel since this is phrased as an 'Israeli goal'?) without being 'defensible'? That's almost inconceivable to me. Unless someone else is going to determine our security requirements for us.

Moreover, the phrase "that reflect subsequent developments" would again be something less than the Bush letter (which I believe uses the same phrase), but more than Clinton's total rejection of that letter. It doesn't commit the Obama administration to the 'settlement blocs' but it definitely shows an expectation that we're not going to go back to the 1967 borders. And it's hard to argue that 'reflect subsequent developments' is limited to the Jerusalem neighborhoods that Abu Mazen conceded to Olmert.

There's a big caveat to all this: We need to see both letters. We need to be sure that regardless of what's written to us (which will almost certainly be made public), the Obama administration is not making contradictory commitments to the 'Palestinians.' The commitments being made to both sides by the United States (and by the 'quartet') need to be on the table. Will they be? Don't hold your breath. That the letters to the respective sides may not be on the table is the most bothersome thing of all.


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At 10:32 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

I think that if events in Iran lead to the collapse of the Islamist regime there, the Palestinians will reassess their options. With their main base of support gone, they will want to reach an agreement with Israel because they can no longer hold out the hope it might one day be overcome and destroyed. If that doesn't happen, we're not going to see any talks occur in the next year.


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