There seems to be general agreement that President Obama has failed to clear up the confusion and consternation he created last Thursday night. As I wrote Monday, I think the speech was troubling for reasons other than the reference to the 1967 borders, which I initially thought was no big deal; those borders are implicitly the basis for any negotiation, and the president more or less endorsed the Israeli position on territorial adjustments.
But my friend Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, raises a vital issue I hadn’t thought of at first: “Mr. Obama called for Israel to make territorial concessions to some approximation of the ’67 lines before an agreement is reached on the existential issues of refugees and Jerusalem.” The issue here is whether Obama still views a final agreement on borders as part of the final status negotiations on the other issues, or whether he expects a final agreement on borders to come before final agreement on the other issues.
At first, I assumed the president was just paraphrasing the Bush-era 2003 Quartet Roadmap, which the parties still treat as binding. The idea of the Roadmap was that steps towards establishing a Palestinian state within provisional borders, with phased Israeli withdrawals linked to Palestinian progress in dismantling terrorism and institutional reform, would precede a final agreement on refugees, Jerusalem, and final borders. In other words, Bret’s description of what Obama said could also fairly describe the Bush policy. It could even describe the Oslo Accords of 1993, which contemplated major Israeli territorial concessions before negotiations on final status issues — refugees, Jerusalem, and final borders.
But the Roadmap and Oslo Accords and every other diplomatic scheme dating back decades have all presumed that refugees, Jerusalem, and final borders would be subject to a final peace agreement. Is Obama now seeking final agreement on borders before final agreement on the other issues? That would be big news. It would mean irreversible Israeli concessions in exchange for the Palestinians merely refraining momentarily from murdering Jews, without even a final peace agreement. As Bret points out, “This doesn’t even amount to a land-for-peace formula.” Actually, it makes no sense at all.
I don’t think that’s what the president was saying, but it’s hard to see what other meaning we’re supposed to give this part of Obama’s speech: “Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of the Palestinian refugees.”
I suppose the Palestinians could “know the territorial outlines of their state” with just a provisional agreement on borders, as contemplated in the 2003 Roadmap. If that’s what Obama meant, then the speech was fully in keeping with policy in both the Bush and Clinton administrations. But if Obama is going to seek final agreement on borders before final agreement on the refugees and Jerusalem, that would be a dramatic and potentially disastrous change in U.S. policy.
Hopefully his next attempt to explain what he meant will succeed in clearing up all the confusion.