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The Strange and Contradictory Perceptions of the Obama Speech on Israel: What did the President Really Say?

The point, Israel’s Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon clarified, is that “no one in the security Cabinet believes it’s possible to reach a solution with Abbas.” If that is so, Obama’s declaration that negotiations must continue -- and still putting the onus on Israel for their failure -- is meaningless. Ya’alon explains as follows:

The president divided the process into two phases; the worst part is that, according to the order set by President Obama, we first have to give up all the territory and return to the 1967 lines. This is a new and precedent-setting statement. This order of affairs is first and foremost suited to the Palestinians' interests. That is why it is good that the prime minister made it clear that those borders are not defensible. In his speech, Obama in effect demanded of us to give up the territorial card without the substantive questions that are important to us -- such as recognition of the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people -- are solved.

As former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Dore Gold has noted:

Mr. Abbas's unilateral move at the U.N. represents a massive violation of a core commitment in the Oslo Agreements in which both Israelis and Palestinians undertook that "neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of Permanent Status negotiations." Palestinian spokesmen counter that Israeli settlements violated this clause. Yet former Prime Minister Rabin was very specific while negotiating Oslo in preserving the rights of Israeli citizens to build their homes in these disputed areas, by insisting that the settlements would be one of the subjects of final status negotiations between the parties.

Writing at Contentions, Jonathan S. Tobin, as usual, gets it just right:

What the world heard and what the world understood -- even if many Jewish Democrats prefer to remain in denial -- is that Obama believes Israel must be pressured hard if there is to be peace. His condescending manner at AIPAC made it clear that he considers Israel to be the primary obstacle to peace.

Pointing out that Israel has to date made many major concessions and hard choices, Tobin continued:

The Palestinians have compounded this refusal with an alliance between the moderates of Fatah and the terrorists of Hamas that even Obama understands eliminates them as a negotiating partner. And yet, he still insists that Israel must negotiate with them and make "hard choices," which will start with their acceptance of his demand that the 1967 lines be the starting point for negotiations. Obama says that this means that the border ought to be different from those lines; yet the Palestinians insist they cannot be. And they will use, as they already have, his endorsement of those lines to buttress the very UN campaign for independent statehood that Obama says he will oppose.

Finally, one must look at how the Palestinian Authority took Obama’s speech: did they see it as one friendly to Israel, as the president’s supporters claim? Look no further than the statement released by chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat: that they would not resume peace negotiations unless Israel accepts the ’67 border guidelines mentioned by the president. In other words, what might be determined in final status negotiations is now, according to Fatah, to be accepted first as a starting point before negotiations are to take place! What should be then negotiated? The status of Haifa, Tel Aviv, etc.? As Erekat says:

Once Netanyahu says that the negotiations will lead to a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, then everything will be set.

Of course, as Erekat knows, that means half of Jersualem, including the Western Wall, would again be closed to Israel. What happened to Obama’s 2008 promise in the speech he then gave to AIPAC, that under an Obama administration Jerusalem would never be divided and would be Israel’s capital?

So we now all wait for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC tonight, and his speech to Congress tomorrow. Will the PM make his own position clear, and challenge the president to put pressure not on our major ally in the region, but on the recalcitrant and intransigent Palestinian Authority, now ready for its formal alliance with Hamas? Or will he appear to try and make it seem that fences have been mended, and he fully believes that Barack Obama is truly Israel’s partner in the Middle East? We will know shortly.