Obama and Netanyahu: A Historical Perspective

On May 19, when President Obama endorsed the Palestinian goal of “the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps” (by which the Palestinians mean the 1967 lines with minor changes), without insisting the Palestinians sign a conflict-ending agreement or recognize a Jewish state with defensible borders, the president gave Israel only a few hours notice, rejected its urgent protest, and proceeded without waiting to meet the next day with its prime minister.


The next day, sitting next to the president, Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered a message as direct as diplomacy permits:

[W]hile Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines — because these lines are indefensible. . . . And these were not the boundaries of peace; they were the boundaries of repeated wars, because the attack on Israel was so attractive.

In a high-profile panel discussion Wednesday in Jerusalem, involving Martin Indyk, Elliott Abrams, and ex-Rep. Robert Wexler, one of the topics discussed was whether Obama loves Israel in his kishkes. Wexler argued Obama had objectively shown “a lot of love,” including lobbying European leaders against recognizing a Palestinian state after “a White House session [May 20] not the easiest for an American president to get through in terms of blunt statements” by Netanyahu.

It is not clear whether Obama is still seeking to push the 1967 lines on Israel, and it is not likely his subsequent lobbying, assuming it occurred, resulted from love. It is more likely it resulted from the resolute position Netanyahu took. In that connection, it is worth noting that the confrontation regarding the 1967 lines was not unprecedented. It has happened at least three times before — and the three prior times are instructive in understanding the position Netanyahu took during the fourth.

The prior three times are described in Yehuda Avner’s invaluable recent book, The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership. Avner was present as note-taker each time, and the quotations in his book are verbatim transcriptions of his notes.

  • Prime Minister Levi Eshkol Meets President Lyndon Johnson.
  • In early 1968, Eshkol came to the United States, desperate to obtain American military equipment, since France — who had previously been Israel’s supplier — had imposed an arms embargo. Eshkol explained to President Johnson and Secretary of State Rusk that the Syrian and Egyptian armies had already been rebuilt for another war, with Soviet help, and Israel lacked what it needed to defend itself.

    Rusk’s response produced a chill in the room. He told Eshkol the Arabs would always be able to outdo Israel in a military build-up:

    If the Arabs see an Israel they cannot live with, one that is intolerable to them, they won’t back away from an arms race. . . . So what we would like to hear from you today is, what kind of an Israel do you want the Arabs to live with? What kind of an Israel do you want the American people to support? Surely, the answer to those questions is not to be found in military hardware.

    Eshkol leaned forward toward Rusk and responded as follows:

    All I can say to you now is that our victory in the Six-Day War blocked the Soviet Union from taking over the Middle East, and that, surely, is an American interest. As for the kind of Israel the Arabs can live with and which the American people can support, the only answer I can presently give you is an Israel whose map will be different from the one on the eve of the Six-Day War. . . . [W]e cannot return to those old, vulnerable armistice frontiers that virtually invited hostilities. [Emphasis added].


    Johnson wrote a sentence on a piece of paper and passed it to Rusk (“Dean – go slow on this thing”) and ended the visit promising Israel the most advanced U.S. fighter planes available.

  • Prime Minister Golda Meir Responds to President Nixon.
  • In 1969, President Nixon’s secretary of state, William Rogers, put forth a plan with changes to the 1967 lines “confined to insubstantial alterations required for mutual security” — with “guarantees” of a “state of peace” by the U.S., Russia, Britain, and France.  He did not consult with Israel first.

    Golda Meir said it was a plan no Israeli government could ever accept. Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to the United States, prepared material for reporters, politicians, and opinion makers reflecting Israel’s talking papers with the administration. The material stated that:

    U.S. policy as it is now unfolding comes close to the advocacy and development of an imposed settlement. . . . [T]he U.S. proposals do more than undermine the principle of negotiation; they preempt its very prospect. If the United States has already determined what the “secure and recognized boundaries” are, there is no point in Israel taking part in any negotiations with anybody at all. Why should the Arabs consent to give Israel more than what America is recommending publicly?

    In White House Years, Kissinger recounted that he told Nixon the plan was “doomed to futility” — it would require massive pressure on Israel and was more likely to produce a war than peace. The plan eventually died.

  • Prime Minister Menachem Begin Meets President Carter.
  • When Menachem Begin first met Jimmy Carter in 1978, he brought with him a map of the 1967 lines, and he addressed the president at length, with emotion:

    We were a helpless people, Mr. President. We were bled, not once, not twice, but century after century, over and over again. We lost a third of our people in one generation — mine. One-and-a-half million of them were children — ours. No one came to our rescue. . . .

    As you see, our military cartographers have delineated the tiny area we had for defense in [the 1967] war. It was a war of survival in the most literal sense. Our backs were to the sea. We had absolutely no defensive depth. . . . There is no going back to those lines. [Emphasis added].

    Begin told Carter that settlements were not only an expression of the right of Jews to settle anywhere in their historic homeland, but a military necessity. Their purpose was not expansionism, but self-defense.

    Presidential love is not a substitute for defensible borders, any more than a “guaranty” or a “binding” UN resolution would be. And it is essential to recognize that defensible borders for Israel are as much an American interest as an Israeli one: indefensible borders will simply produce another Middle East war, no matter what the peace agreement says, or who signs it, or how many Nobel Prizes result from it.

    In Years of Upheaval, Henry Kissinger reflected on the remarkable nature of Israel’s not infrequent resistance to U.S. pressure, given Israel’s unique dependence on America. It takes, he wrote, “a special brand of heroism to turn total dependence into defiance.” But Kissinger concluded that:


    Israel’s obstinacy, maddening as it can be, serves the purposes of both our countries best. A subservient client would soon face an accumulation of ever-growing pressures. It would tempt Israel’s neighbors to escalate their demands. It would saddle us with opprobrium for every deadlock.

    When Obama endorsed the Palestinian demand for indefensible borders on May 19, Netanyahu followed a long tradition in opposing them. He took a position that serves the purposes of both countries best, in the same way that multiple prior prime ministers had done in similar situations.


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