The Obama Middle East Speech and Israel's Reaction

For Israeli policymakers, President Obama's major Middle East speech on 19 May 2011 has been met with alarm. An American president has for the first time broken with the traditional US approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The end result may harden attitudes on both sides of the conflict.

By Barak Seener, Middle East Research Fellow, RUSI

The Obama administration has dramatically shifted from the United State's traditional approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian talks since 1993 when President Clinton presided over the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords.  For the first time, President Obama shifted US policy by being the first president to call for Israel to return to the 1967 borders.


His predecessors, President Bush and President Clinton purposely refused to refer to the 1967 borders. President Obama's pronouncement is certainly a departure from the position outlined by President Bush's 2004 letter to then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -endorsed by a bipartisan majority, including ironically Hilary Clinton. The letter had referred to the fact that both parties would have to agree to any swaps of territory. The letter further declared, '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, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.' Similarly, the Clinton Parameters which was withdrawn by President Clinton before he left office, while referring to land 'swaps and other territorial arrangements', failed to mention the 1967 borders.

This traditional approach towards the conflict was in line with UN Resolution 242 of November 1967 that did not make its calls for Israel's return to a 'secure and recognised' border as synonymous with the 1967 borders. This was due to its aim that the borders would result from negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Britain's foreign secretary at the time, George Brown underscored this saying: 'The proposal said 'Israel will withdraw from territories that were occupied,' and not from 'the' territories, which means that Israel will not withdraw from all the territories.' This principle in fact had already been reiterated by the main author of Resolution 242, the British ambassador to the UN in 1967, Lord Caradon, who decades earlier admitted on PBS: 'We didn't say there should be a withdrawal to the '67 line....We all knew - the boundaries of '67 were not drawn as permanent frontiers, they were a cease-fire line of a couple of decades earlier.' The cease-fire Lord Caradon was referring to was in 1948, when the five Arab armies were prevented from invading the newly created state of Israel and which legally formed an armistice line, not a recognised international border.

Yet President Obama's explicit exhortation for Israel to return to the 1967 borders undermines Resolution 242. The avoidance of referring to Resolution 242 also appeared in repeated letters of assurance to Israel by U.S. secretaries of state from Henry Kissinger to Warren Christopher.  In 1988, Secretary of State George Shultz reiterated: 'Israel will never negotiate from, or return to the lines of partition or to the 1967 borders'. This issue was echoed in the 1993 Oslo Agreements that placed negotiations between the parties as a central solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than being imposed by international coalitions or by unilateral acts. Once again this was reiterated in the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement.

Hardening negotiation position on both sides

President Obama's unilateralism towards the conflict has constantly undermined any prospects for negotiations to be conducted. The negotiation records recently released by Al-Jazeera revealed that in 2008, Palestinian negotiators were prepared to accept many settlements to be included within Israel's final borders in exchange for land swaps with Palestinian majorities within the 1949 armistice lines. Furthermore, President Obama failed to echo the stance adopted by previous administrations that rejected the prospects for the right of return which would demographically overwhelm the state of Israel. These points will create a hardened prerequisite position on the part of the Palestinians to enter any future negotiations with Israel. The Obama administration's willingness for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders in the absence of negotiations precludes the need for Fatah-Hamas to declare an end to the conflict. On the contrary, this can be play into the PLOs phased approach of 1974 which was:

  • Through the 'armed struggle' (seen by Israel and the international community as terrorism), to establish an 'independent combatant national authority' over any territory that is 'liberated' from Israeli rule. (Article 2)
  • To continue the struggle against Israel, using the territory of the national authority as a base of operations. (Article 4)
  • To provoke an all-out war in which Israel's Arab neighbours destroy it entirely ([liberate all Palestinian territory). (Article 8) [1]

Israel will be reluctant to withdraw to the 1967 borders: even doves such as Shimon Peres has conceded that previous agreements such as the 2005 'Unilateral Disengagement' was a mistake as it led to a five-fold increase in rocket fire against Israeli population centres in 2006. Peres has also admitted that the Oslo process was flawed. This process culminated in Israeli cities to be attacked by waves of suicide bombers that left over 1,000 Israelis dead. The Oslo Process failed to address final status issues such as the right of return and the status of Jerusalem. For a consensus of Israeli opinion, President Obama is repeating this mistake by announcing 'two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian refugees.' It is impossible to decouple these issues from matters of territory and security.

This is not the first time that President Obama has hardened the Palestinians' stance. President Obama's pressure on Israel to cease its building in settlements was adopted by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in an unprecedented prerequisite position for entering negotiations. Abbas professed that he was unable to be less Palestinian than the U.S. President himself. [2] Despite Israel freezing its settlement building, the United States undermined its credibility as an arbiter when it reversed its position enabling Abbas to walk away from the negotiation table. This failure was referenced by Obama in his speech. In contrast the Israelis were able to accept President Bush  being the first US President to recognise the prospect of a Palestinian state and conducted a policy of Unilateral Disenagement from Gaza under his watch. The irony is that a U.S. administration that seeks to promote an even-handed or pro-Palestinian approach ends up hardening the positions of both sides. In contrast Israel believes that it is willing to demonstrate and  make major concessions when the United States concentrates on fostering its security.

Israel observes the Obama administration's tepid denouncing of the unity between Fatah and Hamas which merely 'raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel' in his set-piece Middle East speech 19 May, but apparently not for the United States. Obama even failed to echo the Quartet's demands that Hamas recognise Israel and respect all previous agreements. It was only at an AIPAC speech 22 May where he said that the partnership 'poses an enormous obstacle to peace'.  This rouses irrational calls within Israel whether Israel can be abandoned by the United States. Robert Satloff has noted that President Clinton was acutely aware of Israel's security concerns which is why the Clinton Parameters envisioned three Israeli 'facilities' inside the West Bank, with time limit on their presence. In contrast President Obama has referred to the 'full and phased' withdrawal of Israel's forces from a Palestinian state without security measures in place.

By referring to the 1967 borders, President Obama is also frustrating the Palestinians. While on one hand he has declared that he will not support the Palestinians unilaterally seeking UN support for declaring a Palestinian state, he is prejudicing the final status of a Palestinian state. This undermines the Oslo Accords' commitment that 'neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip pending the outcome of Permanent Status negotiations.' There was also no evidence that the final borders between Israel and the Palestinians would be on the 1967 lines.

The U.S. must coherently identify the trajectory it wants to go down when engaging in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the one hand it may seek to adopt a consensual approach and abide by previous resolutions and accords, thus leveling the anticipations of both sides. On the other hand it may conduct a unilateral approach that ignores the historical context of agreements passed while hardening the positions of both sides leading to deadlock and the eruption of further conflict. More fundamentally the United States, as a key arbiter and interlocutor must take care not to fluctuate in its positions as it may serve to undermine its credibility amongst the local parties, in whom the U.S. is so reliant upon.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


1. 10 Point Program of the PLO (1974)

2. 'The Wrath of Abbas' Newsweek, 24 April 2011,

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