Barack Obama showed up a half-hour late, and once again used the self-promoted White House occasion to say nothing specific, and nothing new. Even in the most specific part of the speech, regarding the American position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama offered nothing new. The entire speech could easily have been delivered by George W. Bush in its commendable but hardly inspirational cheering of democratization, which foundered on Obama’s decision to task Bashar Assad with leading democratic reform in Syria.
The first clue as to the wan nature of the speech was a lack of early, embargoed release of the speech. Usually, major addresses get released to the media so that the transcripts go up at about the same time the speech starts. In this case, whether deliberately or through lack of coordination, the first transcript at National Journal appeared more than halfway through the speech. If that is a minor point, then the reaction of the audience at the State Department was not. Obama paused for applause after defending the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, and got silence. Apart from a few weak rounds of applause, the audience didn’t react at all, not even for Obama’s defense of Israel’s existence near the end.
Perhaps that springs from the routine statement of principles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel. 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. 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. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. The duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.
These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I know that these steps alone will not resolve this conflict. Two wrenching and emotional issues remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians.
Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table. In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel – how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist. In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.
There’s nothing wrong with this statement; it’s a fairly clear description of the position of the US for decades, if less than specific. It’s not new at all, and it barely touches on the biggest problems in the conflict, which is the right of return demanded by Palestinians and the status of Jerusalem. Framing the solution along the 1967 line is one of the recurring themes from the US since at least the Clinton administration, and is hardly unique to the US, either.
Despite speaking in generalities on democratization, Obama’s position on its actual implementation seems rather confused. In one passage, he demanded that Yemen’s Saleh step down from power immediately in the earlier proposed deal, but then gave Bashar Assad the mission to democratize Syria:
Our opposition to Iran’s intolerance – as well as its illicit nuclear program, and its sponsorship of terror – is well known. But if America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for change consistent with the principles that I have outlined today. That is true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power. …
The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way. The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests; release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests; allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Dara’a; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition. Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and isolated abroad.
Saleh worked with the US, at least to some degree, to help fight al-Qaeda in Yemen, just as Hosni Mubarak worked with Israel at the behest of Washington. Assad has plotted against Israel, sponsored terrorism with Hamas and Hezbollah, and has treated Syrians at least as brutally as Salah has treated Yemenis, and arguably worse. And yet Obama wants Saleh out now, but with 850 protestors murdered in Syria, wants to continue engaging with Assad. Why not ask Saleh to lead a democratization effort too? Yemen may be an autocracy, but they’re farther along those lines than Syria.
Unfortunately, that’s nothing new, either.
The biggest problem for this speech isn’t Obama’s continuing confusion on working with antagonists and antagonizing allies, or the regurgitation of general principles for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s that the White House once again inflated expectations for a major address just to deliver routine white-paper positions and lip service on democratization. The speech was nothing special at all, one that a deputy secretary at the State Department could have just as easily covered.
Update: I’m not sure how the AP came up with this:
President Barack Obama is endorsing the Palestinians’ demand for their future state to be based on the borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East war, in a move that will likely infuriate Israel. Israel says the borders of a Palestinian state have to be determined through negotiations.
Er … no, he didn’t. He said that the settlement should “be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” That’s been the US position for quite a while.
Update II: Seriously, how the Associated Press could make this kind of a mistake is beyond me. Not only is this point clear in the text, Obama delivered it accurately as well. Here’s the video, via Greg Hengler:
He did not say “pre-1967.” Obama gave the standard US position.
Update III: Plenty of pushback on the 1967 comment hitting the news, the most significant of which is Netanyahu’s blast at Obama over getting specific:
Israel’s prime minister has rejected a key aspect of President Barack Obama’s policy speech, saying that a return to his country’s 1967 borders would spell disaster for the Jewish state.
In a statement released late Thursday, Benjamin Netanyahu called the 1967 lines “indefensible.”
The issue, according to the AP, is the major West Bank settlements — which have always been the issue. Obama called for territory swaps, presumably to cover this issue, but it’s obviously not going down well in Jerusalem. While US plans for peace settlements have long been based on the 1967 lines, the US has until now not been specifically committed to those lines — so this does represent a significant change, at least in public commitments.