Obama’s Position on Israel’s Future Borders Contradicts Assurances by President Bush

By Patrick Goodenough | May 20, 2011 | 4:30 AM EDT

President Barack Obama shakes hands with audience members after he delivered his Middle East speech at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, May 19, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

(CNSNews.com) – The boundaries President Obama endorsed Thursday as Israel’s future borders would leave the country, at its narrowest point, nine miles wide between “Palestine” and the Mediterranean Sea.

By declaring that the Palestinian state should border Jordan, Obama furthermore implied that Israel should not retain possession of the strategic Jordan Valley, the strip of land immediately to the west of the Jordan River. A succession of Israeli governments, right and left, together with generations of top military officers, have argued that a military presence there is essential for future security.

“The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine,” Obama said in his speech at the State Department.

“We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

Sometimes inaccurately called the “1967 borders,” the lines referred to by Obama are the 1949 armistice lines that were in place up until the June 1967 Six Day War.

By the time the fighting ended, Israel had captured the entire West Bank, including eastern parts of Jerusalem from Jordan; the Gaza Strip and Sinai peninsula from Egypt; and the Golan Heights from Syria.

The Sinai was returned to Egypt in the early 1980s following the Israel-Egypt peace agreement; Israel surrendered most of Gaza and parts of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority as an outcome of the 1993 Oslo accords, and left Gaza altogether in 2005.

The demonstrably indefensible boundaries held by Israel between 1948 and 1967 prompted Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban’s famous remark in 1969 to the effect that those borders evoked the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz.

“I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz,” Eban was quoted as saying. “We shudder when we think of what would have awaited us in the circumstances of June, 1967, if we had been defeated; with Syrians on the mountain and we in the valley, with the Jordanian army in sight of the sea, with the Egyptians who hold our throat in their hands in Gaza. This is a situation which will never be repeated in history.”

President George W. Bush and Israeli President Shimon Peres talk in Jerusalem on May 14, 2008. (Photo: White House/Joyce N. Boghosian)

When then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005 – uprooting 9,000 Israelis living there in the process – he did so largely on the basis of assurances contained in a letter sent by President George W. Bush the previous year.

In the letter, Bush referred to the future boundaries of Israel arising from “final status” negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, 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,” Bush wrote, adding that “all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.”

“It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities,” he continued.

The crucial Bush letter was endorsed by large majorities of both Houses of Congress in June 2004.

The House of Representatives passed a resolution by a vote of 407-9, saying that it “strongly endorses the principles articulated by President Bush in his letter dated April 14, 2004, to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon which will strengthen the security and well-being of the State of Israel.”

The lead sponsors were Reps. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), Tom Delay (R-Texas), Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Tom Lantos (D-Calif.).

The Senate one day later also passed a resolution, 95-3, which like the House text incorporated key sentences from the Bush letter regarding a “realistic” final settlement.

It was sponsored by then majority leader Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), joined by senior Democrats as co-sponsors, among them Sens. Tom Daschle (S.D.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Carl Levin (Mich.).

Sen. Hillary Clinton voted for the measure; Sen. John Kerry, running for president, did not vote.

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the White House in May 2009. (AP Photo)

In his response to Obama’s speech, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – who is due to meet with Obama at the White House on Friday – referred to Bush’s 2004 assurances.

“Israel appreciates President Obama’s commitment to peace.  Israel believes that for peace to endure between Israelis and Palestinians, the viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state,” his office said in a statement.

“That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress,” it said.

“Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines.”

The statement also said Netanyahu would make clear in his talks with Obama “that the defense of Israel requires an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River.”

The two U.N. Security Council resolutions at the heart of calls for Israel to relinquish land it conquered in the Six Day War, resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973), call for “withdrawal from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”

According to published reports at the time, drafters of those resolutions intentionally omitted the words “the” or “all” before the word “territories,” acknowledging that the exact land to be surrendered would be subject to future negotiation.

That future negotiation was to take into account the other central requirement of the resolutions – Israel’s “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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