Friday, May 20, 2011

Bibi, Baby, Meant to Call You, But Lost Your Number...

President Obama's speech on Middle East policy is the latest textbook case of where a simple declarative statement meets diplomatic nuance, and the end result is all of Embassy Row starts crowing like school kids playing I've got a secret.

Except it isn't a secret, in this case. It's just a breathless Foggy Bottom moment.

History was made, some contend, when Obama said out loud yesterday what has been a given in Middle East peace negotiations dating back to the Camp David Accords:

"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," Obama said during his Mideast policy speech at the State Department.

"The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state," Obama added (Click here for the complete text of President Obama's speech).

For the nonplussed, at best the news here is an American President finally said out loud what everyone already understood to be the de facto basis for negotiation: The starting point was the pre-1967 borders.

The news today from The New York Times that Obama does not consider Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be a serious peacemaker is also not much of a secret.  Netanyahu lost credibility early in the peace process, when he blindsided then-President Clinton at the Wye River peace talks when he unexpectedly demanded the release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. It was a stunt that forever painted Netanyahu as a hurdle to a peace deal.

Netanyahu, who meets today with Obama in Washington, was none too pleased by Obama's speech. He tried until the last minute to lobby Obama to stay away from the 1967 border issue, but his rants went unheard.

"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," the Israeli leader's office said in a statement after Obama delivered his speech.

"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. 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 Israeli government's statement added.

Netanyahu's right wing allies in the Knesset were less diplomatic.

"Barack Hussein Obama adopted the staged plan for Israel's destruction of Yasser Arafat, and he is trying to force it on our prime minister," said Likud member Danny Danon. "All that was new in the speech was that he called for Israel to return to 1967 borders without solving the crisis. Netanyahu has only one option: To tell Obama forget about it."  

But Haaretz editor-at-large Aluf Benn  writes that Netanyahu is the big winner on the eve of his meetings in Washington. "In return for his call for the establishment of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, without defining the size of these lands, Obama accepted Netanyahu's demands for strict security arrangements and a gradual, continuous withdrawal from the West Bank," Benn wrote.

Nonetheless, the speech advanced U.S. policy toward the Middle East peace process, as Netanyahu's prickly response demonstrated, Laura Rozen writes at Yahoo!

The Muslim Brotherhood, however, did not think the speech moved the ball forward.

"A disappointing speech. Nothing new. American strategy remains as is. American cover for dictatorial presidents, in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain remains as is," said Essam El-Erian, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. "Perhaps the sharpest tone was towards Libya. American promises are just promises. There is no decisive decision to immediately withdraw from Iraq or Afghanistan. Threatening Iran remains the same."

Stateside, Republicans predictably jumped on the Bibi bandwagon, slamming Obama for not favoring Israel over the Palestinians in the peace process.

"President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus," ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wrote in a statement. "He has disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace. He has also violated a first principle of American foreign policy, which is to stand firm by your friends."

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