The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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A Guide for the Perplexed, the Partisan, or the Merely Clueless
Published on May 26, 2011

Watching the political circus here in Washington, and not only in Washington, often throws up no little bit of frustration. People in this town say the damnedest things sometimes. The typical think tank event here is rich in posturing and positioning, far poorer in any capacity to recognize, let alone follow, rules of evidence normal, for example, in any halfway serious university discussion. As a recovering speechwriter for a cabinet level principal, I am well aware of the various techniques of impression management that are honed to fine art here and in other political capitals. That doesn’t mean, however, that I like a steady diet of them.

At my age I thought myself appropriately jaded, so that nothing could surprise me or deprive me of my normal supply of oxygen. I was wrong. The orgy of idiocy that has broken out over one paragraph of President Obama’s May 19 speech on the Middle East has shocked even a veteran observer like me. I am referring, of course, to the statement the President made about the 1967 lines being, with land swaps, the basis for negotiating secure and recognized borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state.

I commented on this statement and on the fracas that began to erupt within hours of the President’s speech in an earlier post, one called “79 Notes”, in which I annotated the President’s remarks. I want now to revisit and expand my analysis because so much has happened even in the past few days that my original commentary now seems inadequate and outdated.

Let me preface my remarks by reminding readers that in “79 Notes” I rued the fact that the President spoke of Israel/Palestine matters at all. In my view, that decision was a deflection from the main purpose of the speech, which was to give the so-called Arab Spring its due, and to enunciate U.S. policy toward it. As I said then, the President rightly noted that the Arab–Israeli conflict had been used by generations of Arab autocrats to deflect attention away from their regimes’ inability to provide for the citizens of their countries. It therefore seemed to me unwise for the President, in essence, to contribute to that deflection. Given what has happened since Thursday, there can be no doubt that this has been the result. For every thought or commentary that has been devoted to what the President said about the Arab Spring, at least a hundred thoughts and commentaries have been devoted to this silly business about the 1967 lines, what the President said, what it meant, what he meant to say, what the Israeli Prime Minister said a few days later, and so on and so forth literally, in my case, ad nauseum.

Why do I say that this business is silly? Because the President literally said nothing new. Even in the way he said it there was nothing particularly new. For those who have been following the intricacies of Arab-Israeli diplomacy over the years, the truth of this statement will be manifest—at least to those who wish to make an effort at objective assessment. For those who have not been following it, or for those who are too young to have had a chance to follow it, there must be an abiding confusion over just what the hell is going on. So at the risk of boring the initiated, let me explain, in terms as simple as I can make them, just exactly what the hell is going on.

Let us start with what the President actually said, shall we? (Alas, some commentators seem to have been content to take their lead from other commentators without having actually heard or read what the President said.) Here, exactly, is what he said: “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.”

You will notice that the phrase “land swaps” is included within the selfsame sentence in which the 1967 lines are mentioned. Indeed, it is mentioned without there being even a comma to separate the two parts of the sentence. Aside from the explicit mention of the year 1967, I cannot see how this logically departs from the Clinton parameters in any way.

Ah, the Clinton parameters—what are they? To make a very long story very short, the Clinton parameters, announced in the year 2000 just days before President Clinton left office, represented the distillation of the discussions at Camp David in the summer of that year and in certain discussions thereafter. This was an American attempt to preserve what appeared to be major areas of agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian delegations as they met at and after Camp David to discuss then Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s proposal for a peace settlement. There is no text of what President Clinton said to the delegations but there are authoritative notes that capture the essence, and neither side disputes the accuracy of these notes. (At least they can agree on something, it just goes to show.) In the Clinton parameters the President talks about the West Bank being given over to a new Palestinian state in the mid-90s, which means, as later explicitly stated, between 94 and 96% of the West Bank. If Israel were to annex between 4 and 6% of the West Bank, wherein live more than 80% of the settler population, it was presumed that to compensate Palestinians for that small area, agreed chunks of pre-1967 Israel would be turned over to the Palestinian state.

The Clinton parameters represented an attempt to detail what had always been U.S. policy since the 1967 war, which followed the U.S. interpretation of the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions, namely resolution 242 and, somewhat less centrally in this case, resolution 338. The American interpretation of resolution 242 has always been that Israel would withdraw from territories occupied as a result of the June 1967 war. Territories, not the territories or all territories. That is not what the resolution says and that was deliberate: the man who drafted it, Eugene Rostow, knew exactly what he was doing, and I know all this because he told me so.

The American position has always recognized that the 1967 lines, as they are commonly referred to today, were really the 1949 armistice lines, based on the series of bilateral armistice accords worked out in Rhodes after the 1948 war. These armistice lines differed from the dividing lines between Israel and Egypt, and between Israel and both Syria and Lebanon. Those lines were and remain international borders. Given the transitional nature of the armistice lines separating Israel from what Jordan called the West Bank, resolution 242 focused not on lines for their own sake, but rather on borders that are defensible. Therefore, it has always been U.S. policy, since the Johnson Administration, to see the 1967 lines as a basis for negotiation between the parties, but no one ever expected the lines themselves to be the final borders. The Clinton parameters, by specifying the degree of change from the 1967 lines—4 to 6%—and by creating the concept of land swaps, may be fairly said to have advanced and detailed U.S. policy rather than to have changed it.

Now, in April 2004, President Bush codified this understanding by stating, privately but authoritatively, to the Israeli government that the U.S. government did not expect Israel to withdraw from all of the territories it occupied in the 1967 war, but this statement had particular reference to settlements very near, in most cases, the 1967 lines and in which, as already stated, the vast majority of Israeli settlers lived. One could argue that defensible borders and borders that took in major Israeli settlement blocs are one and the same, but they are not exactly the same. Nevertheless, in a sense, the April 2004 letter serve the same function as the Clinton parameters: namely, it further specified what had already been long-standing U.S. government policy.

There have been differences among administrations over other questions, notably Jerusalem. But on the question of borders there really has not been any variance to speak of. And there still isn’t any variance.

As I said in my earlier posting, I can only think of three possible reasons as to how a normal, English-literate adult could so egregiously misread the President’s remark made last Thursday. One of these reasons is sheer ignorance. It is possible, I suppose, that people who know none of the history that I have just briefly sketched heard the President and thought that he was invoking the 1967 lines for the very first time. A second reason has to do with politics—partisan politics, that is. I can imagine some listeners understanding exactly that the President had said nothing new, but nevertheless took the opportunity to claim that he did in such a way as to make hay politically against him. Avaricious Republicans may well have been thinking about the vote in Florida in 2012 upcoming. Florida has proven recently to be a tight and a critical swing state in presidential elections, and it is one of only a very few states where the Jewish vote matters. Of course, in order to peddle a falsehood to people, one has to count on either their ignorance or their credulity. And that brings me to the third reason for why some people seem to have misunderstood what the President said.

There are a lot of people out there who just don’t like Barack Obama. Their minds are made up before he opens his mouth that whatever he says they are determined to disagree with. Most Jews in the United States supported Obama, as they have supported virtually every Democratic candidate for the last century and more. But early in the administration President Obama said and did things with regard to Israel that gave many of these supporters second thoughts. Some concluded that he had no warmth in his heart for Israel. This led some people to conclude, however irrational it is, that he feels antagonistic toward Israel. So their minds are already predisposed to hear bad things out of the mouth of Barack Obama even when no such sounds are in fact present. Credulity thus combined with ignorance to allow politically partisan entrepreneurs to create impressions despite a total lack of evidence to support them. And that, in a nutshell, is what I think has happened.

Things have gotten even stranger as a result of two additional speeches: Obama’s speech at the AIPAC convention on Sunday, and then Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress a few days later. Let’s carefully review, at least in brief, what happened.

When president Obama addressed AIPAC on Sunday night, he was obviously distressed that, in his view, much of what he had said three days earlier had been misinterpreted. He was right that what he said had been misinterpreted, though he did not offer a theory as to why. Again, it is important to focus on exactly what the President said. He said:”Let me re-affirmed what ’1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps’ means. By definition, it means that the parties themselves—Israelis and Palestinians—will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. That’s what ‘mutually agreed swaps’ means. It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation.” The President also added, just in case anybody still didn’t get it, “there was nothing particularly original in my proposal.”

It’s enough to drive you completely crazy, but even after the President clarified what he meant, and did so in no uncertain terms, there were still people urging him to clarify what he meant! The TV cameras roamed the floor at the AIPAC convention after the President spoke, trolling for newsworthy comment, and one hapless interviewee said to a reporter, in effect—I am paraphrasing here—”Well, I’m confused; I don’t know what to believe—what the President said on Thursday or what he said here tonight.” The fact that the President said on Sunday night exactly what he had said on Thursday seemed to make no impression on this fellow or on many of his associates. The Thursday remark had already been so much spun beyond reality, that the spin itself had taken on a life of its own. Now, was this person ignorant, partisan, or credulous? It is very hard to know. He may have managed to be all three, and he was hardly alone.

In defense of those who mistook what the President said, there were and there remain contextual issues to be considered. Although hardly anyone has mentioned it, other things the President said on Thursday did depart from the Clinton parameters and really were news, at least news within the glass bead game labyrinth of Arab-Israeli diplomacy. One of these departures concerns the question of whether Israeli military facilities of any kind can remain within a Palestinian state at least for a transitional stage after the implementation of an agreement. In the Clinton parameters, there was an understanding that three Israeli facilities—essentially early warning stations manned by a relative few individuals—would and could remain. But on Thursday the President spoke of complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, and he did not mention any such facilities. This was clearly a tilting in the Palestinian direction. Even more dramatic, but again virtually ignored since Thursday because of the 1967 lines nonsense, the President proposed separating the four standard issues presumed to be engaged in a final settlement: borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees. The idea expressed on Thursday was to hammer out a deal on borders and security, and leave Jerusalem and refugees for later in the hopes that by compartmentalizing the problems they would be easier to solve.

It is not particular surprising to see this idea in the President’s speech. It is a notion propagated in a book not long ago co-authored by David Makovsky and Dennis Ross. Dennis Ross is, as I think everyone knows, an employee of the U.S. government right now, yet again. In point of fact, he is the President’s key official on this area of the world in the National Security Council. If anything, his influence has risen lately with the resignation of Middle East special envoy George Mitchell. It is not surprising, as I said, to see this idea in the speech, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. It might be, but I am not persuaded that it is. From the Israeli point of view, the refugee issue is very difficult to separate from security. I do not think any Israeli government can afford to negotiate a deal over borders and security without an understanding about refugees, because any deal over borders and security can be undone de facto by Palestinian insistence on the “right of return.” That doesn’t mean they would get their way on such an insistence, but an inability to close the deal over the last two issues—Jerusalem and refugees—means that the negotiation can’t get to the end-of-conflict stage, which from the Israeli point of view is really the main point of the whole effort. Israelis are willing to trade real assets, real land, and even to take some risks on security issues if the payoff is a genuine and binding commitment to end the conflict. To give over real assets for anything short of that, I think, most Israeli governments that I can imagine would demur. And who could blame them?

So it is fair to say, perhaps, that taken as a whole the President’s remarks on Thursday tilted toward the Palestinians. And a lot of people have remarked that, in the aftermath of Fatah’s agreement to join a unity arrangement with Hamas, still unreconciled to Israel’s existence, such a tilt amounts to rewarding bad behavior. I agree with this, as I have said before. But that’s not the same as accusing the President of introducing pro-Palestinian novelty on the question of borders.

Now, on an even finer point of interpretation, some have said that that President Obama in effect had earlier repudiated the Bush statement of April 2004. That led some to read into his remarks on Thursday more than was literally there, but which might be a fair interpretation in light of context. There is some weight in this argument, and it is important, too, to understand that for one President to repudiate a solemn promise given by a predecessor sets a very bad precedent. It devalues the word of the President of the United States, not the man but the office. Who will believe a presidential promise in future if prior promises can be so easily removed from play? Some have suggested, therefore, that President Obama needs to explicitly reinstate the essence of the April 2004 statement. That is probably too much to ask at the present time. I still think, however, that the President’s words, as stated on Thursday and as clarified and repeated on Sunday, mark no literal change of U.S. policy.

Nicholas Carr wrote a book a little while ago called The Shallows. The book is about IT technology and the effects it may be having on our cognitive processing abilities. Many people wonder whether attention spans are being shortened by the nature of the technology, whether time-honored rules of evidence are being smothered by the rapid-fire shoot-from-the-hip subculture of the blogosphere, whether there is a tendency to equate information with knowledge in a situation in which so many people have no context to interpret information, and really—what it all comes down to—whether a genuine lack of seriousness now pervades our political discourse. I confess to some concern about all this, but coming up with actual evidence isn’t easy. But when I behold the almost unbelievable outpouring of ignorance and sheer nonsense over what the President said last Thursday, I think I am as close to evidence as I am likely soon to get that our political culture has stopped being even remotely serious. Never before in my life have I witnessed anything quite like this, where facts and common sense have been so rapidly and thoroughly been tossed out the window in favor of cant, spin, venom and a whole wheelbarrow full of dogshit dumb stupidity.

As I noted a moment ago, is not only President Obama’s Sunday night speech to AIPAC that forms the context of the current craziness, but also what Prime Minister Netanyahu had to say to Congress. As speeches go, Netanyahu’s speech was very good. It was quite well-crafted. And in the speech, as everyone knows, Netanyahu objected to any use of the 1967 lines as the basis for anything. If one did not understand the history of what the President said in the first place, one could get the impression that Netanyahu was taking issue with something new, something that just been introduced on Thursday. That, apparently, is what most people think. But this is not the case. Netanyahu and his Likud Party have never accepted, never been in accord with, U.S. policy on the question of borders going all the way back to 1967.

The Likud has in fact come a long way from its views a quarter-century ago, when it was still dedicated to what in Hebrew transliterated as eretz yisrael shleyma, the greater Land of Israel, or better translated, the whole or complete land of Israel. In this original Likud view, which dates back to the party’s founder, Vladimir Jabotinsky, all of what became the West Bank in 1948–49 really belongs to Israel, and that if there is to be a Palestinian state that state already exists in what is called Jordan. This theory is based on a misinterpretation, actually a willfulness interpretation, of the history of the Palestine mandate, the Churchill White paper, and the nature of the Mandate itself. (We don’t have time here to go into all this; I have done it before and if anybody is interested they can let me know and I can pass along the relevant materials.) Back at its ideological peak, so to speak, the Likud view was that no land west of the Jordan River should pass back into the hands of any Arab sovereignty, and some Likud proponents argued that the way to truly secure the land west of the river for Israel was to expel or in other ways incentivize the departure of the Arabs who live there.

As I say, today’s Likud Party is a long way from this view. Indeed, a long-time Likudnik become Kadima Party Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, offered Mahmud Abbas a peace deal in 2008 not all that different from the one Barak had put to Yasir Arafat in the summer of 2000. This would’ve been inconceivable twenty years earlier. Nevertheless, as anyone familiar with the history of the Likud Party knows, it has never accepted the standard Israeli Labour Party or U.S. interpretation of resolution 242 and it still does not.

Now it is interesting to note that because of the confusion that has arisen over what Netanyahu was talking about, and the spun misinterpretation of Obama’s statement in the first place, it now looks like Netanyahu has the support of Congress, including even many prominent Democrats, against something the President presumably he tried to introduce as new policy. Since, as I have shown, Obama intended no such thing, it will be easy now to characterize his view as one that has been backed down, when he has done nothing of the sort.

Strange as it may seem, the argument between Obama and Netanyahu, real as it is—though it has nothing to do with any attempted U.S. policy innovation concerning the 1967 lines—actually helps both men in a way. It certainly helps Netanyahu, who can now pose as having outflanked the President of the United States in his own legislature and thus strengthen his coalition and burnish his popularity at home. In a way, all of this helps Obama because, even though it isn’t true, to those who believe in the almost mystical power of the Jewish lobby, he appears to be brave, besieged, abused, and hence altogether lovable to those prone to exalt victims of all sorts. He is a political martyr, though in this case without actually having done anything fatal.

In the longer run, however, this argument doesn’t really help either person or their constituencies. It is not a good thing when Israeli Prime Ministers try to insinuate themselves into American domestic political affairs. The last time this happened was in the mid-1980s when Itzhak Shamir tried his hand at a similar ploy, and it backfired badly. Politicians may not know a lot about the facts in an area like the Middle East or the Arab-Israeli conflict, but they have very long memories when it comes to political combat. Those whom Netanyahu may get the better of now will bide their time and look for a way to exact revenge. But it won’t be revenge against Netanyahu—it will be revenge against Israel.

Nor is President Obama really helped by any of this. It is not as though he can easily translate the sentiment of conspiracy theorists at home and abroad into anything useful either with regard to his own political ambitions or the foreign policy interests of United States. Nor, of course, can it change the fact that Obama has proved completely feckless in Arab-Israeli diplomacy. The parties are farther away now from negotiations than they were before he tried to bring them together, and that is no coincidence. He has screwed up royally, and there is no way to avoid a price for that.

Well, in conclusion, the trouble the President has gotten himself into, unfair as it is to some extent, is nonetheless his own fault. He should not have spoken about Israel/Palestine issues in Thursday’s speech—he should’ve saved all that for Sunday at AIPAC. The real error he made, however, is one he seems to make all the time: He tries to split the difference when he cannot make up his mind on a point and when his advisers disagree with each other over it. So in this case there were some people in the administration close to the President who advised him to lay out a detailed U.S. plan for Arab-Israeli peace, and there were others who tried to warn him not to do this at a time when prospects for progress are so unavailing. So what did he do? He split the difference. He laid out some general parameters, but they fell far short of a detailed U.S. blueprint. He would have been better off not being the master of the half measure in this case, but rather of either having shut up or of having gone full bore.

It is an interesting practical and philosophical enterprise to examine the question of when half measures, or incremental approaches, to put it more formally, makes sense in political life and when they do not. There are certain structural aspects of problems that seem to mitigate either for or against the success of incremental approaches. But this is a very complicated and difficult question, not one to be explored in depth in a mere blog post. The point here is that President Obama is by his nature diffident when it comes to all questions except those he has really thought through. This tendency to split the difference identifies him, as I have argued before, as having the personality not of a professor—as so many have claimed—but rather the personality of a judge. That kind of approach can work in American politics, or at least it used to be able to work. But it does not work well as an approach to diplomacy. In diplomacy most of the time, including the diplomacy of war, as in the Libya case, the last thing a President should want to do is get himself and the country stuck in the hell of half measures. That’s the specific precinct of hell the President got himself into this time. Let’s see how he tries to get himself out.