President Barack Obama has been under siege at home — even by members of his own party — after making a case for using the 1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
But the president’s position has garnered support from the European Union, United Nations and Russia — the so-called quartet of international mediators that includes the United States — ahead of a possible showdown in the U.N. General Assembly, in which the Palestinians could seek a vote to declare statehood.
Obama declared that the borders prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza, should be a starting point for stalled negotiations, with adjustments to account for current Israeli settlements. This approach is not new and has been long viewed in some circles as the foundation for a peace agreement.
Israel rejected the approach and protested that a return to the 1967 borders would leave it “indefensible.” The Israelis say the West Bank is a strategic position, and giving it up would leave their nation vulnerable to attack and jeopardize its security.
Not surprising, a chorus of voices immediately questioned the president’s commitment to Israeli security — a long-established priority of American foreign policy. Republican presidential candidates wasted no time taking shots at Obama.
Some Democratic leaders joined the president’s critics. According to a Washington Post report, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said at an American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) meeting that “no one should set premature parameters about borders … or about anything else.”
At the AIPAC conference, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, said, “Israel’s borders must be defensible and must reflect the reality on the ground.” He added that the negotiations should continue “without preconditions.”
Obama responded that his views had been misrepresented. “Let me reaffirm what ‘1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps’ means,” Obama told the AIPAC members. “By definition, it means that the parties themselves — Israelis and Palestinians — will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.”
While controversy brewed at home, America’s European allies backed the president’s policy. Reuters reported that German Chancellor Angela Merkel supported Obama and said that basing a peace agreement on Israel’s 1967 border could be the way forward. The British foreign office also signaled its backing.
In a statement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon endorsed Obama’s policy speech. The U.N. chief said Obama “offered important ideas which could help the peace talks move forward.” He also called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to “respond like statesmen and peacemakers to this important speech.”
This vote of support comes as a confrontation looms at the United Nations. When the U.N. General Assembly convenes in September, many expect the Palestinian Authority to push for a resolution recognizing the State of Palestine as a new member of the world body, with territory that includes the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
This could put Israel and the United States in an awkward position: Israel would be occupying land that belongs to a U.N. member, and the United States would possibly have to use its Security Council veto to block the Palestinian move, at a time when it seeks to foster Arab democratization.