As Obama Calls Mideast Peace ‘Urgent,’ Others Say Israel Should Not be Pushed to Relinquish Territory

By Patrick Goodenough | April 6, 2011 | 5:11 AM EDT

President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas in New York Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Palestinian Authority)

( – President Obama’s assertion Tuesday that turmoil in the Arab world makes it more urgent to seek an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement is precisely the opposite of what some experts are saying – that the uncertainty arising from the upheaval makes it even more important for Israel not to surrender territory vital to its security.

With Iran suspected to be behind a recent uptick in terrorism, Hezbollah’s ascendancy in Lebanon, and uncertainty about the future of relations with Egypt, Jordan and Syria, they argue, progress in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) should be far from a priority for Jerusalem.

Speaking after meeting Tuesday with Shimon Peres, Israel’s ceremonial president, Obama said the situation in the region was an opportunity to be grasped.

“With the winds of change blowing through the Arab world, it’s more urgent than ever than we try to seize the opportunity to create a peaceful solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” he said.

For Obama and his re-election campaign, two challenges loom in September: a P.A. push to get U.N. recognition for Palestinian statehood, and the arrival of the one-year deadline for a peace deal the administration set itself when it launched “direct talks” between Israel and the P.A. in early September 2010.

Obama’s comment comes amid reports of a new push by the European Union to have the “Mideast Quartet” – the E.U., U.S., U.N. and Russia – announce a new blueprint for a peace agreement based on  the “1967 borders,” possibly as soon as next week.

The “1967 borders” are in fact the armistice lines from the war that accompanied the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. The lines held from 1949 until the June 1967 Six Day War.

Successive Israeli governments have ruled out a withdrawal to those boundaries, which, at one point north of Tel Aviv, left Israel just nine miles wide, from enemy-held territory in the east to the Mediterranean in the west.

Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (Photo: JCPA)

In a key letter to the Israeli government that was later endorsed by overwhelming votes in the U.S. House and Senate, President Bush in 2004 stated that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

Addressing the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Dore Gold noted that the Obama administration had “neither embraced nor renounced” the crucial 2004 Bush letter.

Gold, who heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs think tank, questioned the timing of the new Quartet initiative.

“Amazingly, these new demands of Israel, which would be problematic in any event, are being proposed at the worst possible time, that is, precisely when the entire Middle East looks like it is engulfed in flames,” he said.

‘Strategic uncertainty’

While it was hoped the upheavals would eventually lead to accountable and democratic governments, Gold told the committee, “in the short- and medium-term, the results could be highly destabilizing and bring to power far more radical forces that could seek renewed conflict.”

“[J]ust as Israel faces complete strategic uncertainty with regard to the future of the Middle East, it is being asked to acquiesce to unprecedented concessions that could put its very future at risk. This is clearly misguided advice.”

Gold said Israel was expected to negotiate and sign agreements, involving withdrawal from strategic areas, with governments that may not even be in place in the future

“Look what is happening in Egypt after the fall of President Mubarak, where senior political figures are already saying that they will have to re-examine the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace,” he said.

“No one can provide a guarantee to Israel that the regimes ruling today in Syria, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia will not be overthrown.”

With regard to the Palestinians, Gold said, “[w]ere Israel to pull out of the West Bank, under present circumstances, it could not depend on [P.A. chairman Mahmoud] Abbas remaining, regardless of what is happening to Arab regimes today across the region. In short, the degree of strategic uncertainty for Israel, given current political trends around it, has increased sharply.”

Tuesday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee briefing, entitled “Israel’s security requirements for defensible borders,” also featured contributions by two Israeli Defense Forces generals.

Theory of ‘Palestinian centrality’ challenged

Commentators have argued over recent weeks that the popular protests that erupted in Arab countries this year, beginning with Tunisia and spreading to Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere, should put to rest the held-held assertion that the Palestinian issue is central to stability in the Middle East.

“The last few months should have finally shattered the persistent illusion that the Israeli-Palestinian question determines all in the Middle East,” National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote in a New York Post column.

“For over four decades, the driving idea behind the West’s approach to the Middle East has been the supposed centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Arab popular anger at the West …” Weekly Standard senior editor Lee Smith noted in the Jewish publication, Tablet.

“[O]ne of the most baffling things about the current wave of Arab revolutions to professional Middle East watchers must be the complete absence of any mention of the Palestinians in popular demonstrations and regime counter-propaganda alike,” Smith said.

While they and others challenge what has become known as the “theory of Palestinian centrality,” the administration does not appear to agree.

At Tuesday’s State Department press briefing, spokesman Mark Toner was asked whether the upheaval across the Arab world meant that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was now “on the backburner” or “central to Mideast stability.”

“It’s always central to Mideast stability,” he replied.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow