Israel Clings to Status Quo

May 24th, 2011



“The status quo is unsustainable,” President Obama said when he addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Sunday. That’s the core issue in the controversy over President Obama’s Middle East policy.

The status quo is unsustainable for the United States because it is undermining Obama’s policy of outreach to the Muslim world. General David Petraeus said as much when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last year. “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests” in the Middle East, Petraeus testified.

That is even more true now, with the political transformation of the Arab world.  Hostility to Israel is a deeply populist Arab sentiment. More populist Arab governments are likely to mean more anti-Israel governments. And more anti-American governments as long as Arabs see the U.S. as Israel’s key supporter. “A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people—not just one or two leaders—must believe peace is possible,” President Obama said in his speech last week on the Middle East.

For Palestinians, the status quo has been unsustainable for decades. This year, impatience with the status quo has led the Palestinian Authority to reconcile with Hamas and to press for UN recognition of a Palestinian state.

The international community is also becoming impatient with the status quo. “The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome,” President Obama said. He warned the AIPAC audience, “That impatience is growing.”

If dissatisfaction with the status quo is increasing in the U.S., in the Arab world, in the Palestinian population and in the international community, who can live with it? The answer: Israel. Israel may not be comfortable as an occupying power. But the situation is tolerable, especially since the security fence appears to have reduced the number of terrorist attacks. The Netanyahu government sees alternatives to the status quo that involve Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank as far more threatening.

President Obama tried to make the case that the status quo is a dire threat to Israel because of demographic realities. The growing number of Palestinians living under the occupation, Obama warned, “will make it harder and harder—without a peace deal—to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state.”

Israel wants three things: a Jewish state, a democratic state and a Greater Israel that includes all or most of the territories conquered in the 1967 war. It can have any two of those things—but not all three.

  • A Jewish state that includes the occupied territories cannot be democratic because Palestinians will outnumber Jews.
  • A democratic Israel that includes the occupied territories cannot be a Jewish state because the Palestinians will control the majority.
  • Only by ceding territory to a Palestinian state can Israel remain both Jewish and democratic. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon figured that out. That’s why he favored unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories. But Israelis saw what happened when they withdrew from Gaza: terror attacks, war and a Hamas takeover. They don’t want to make that mistake again.

The controversy is over whether President Obama was calling for Israel to change when he said last week, “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” For Israel, the pre-war 1967 lines are totally unacceptable. “It has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz,” the late Israeli statesman Abba Eban once said.

Obama argued that there is nothing new in his proposal that negotiations start with the 1967 borders. They “have been the template for discussions between the United States, Israel and the Palestinians since at least the Clinton Administration,” he told AIPAC. The President claimed he was simply “stating them publicly.” But in the Middle East, stating something publicly makes a big difference.

Critics immediately claimed that Obama was rejecting the written assurance given to Israel by President George W. Bush in 2004, that “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,” i.e., the 1967 boundaries. But notice that Bush was talking about the “outcome” of negotiations. Obama is talking about the starting point of negotiations.

What President Obama’s statement does is grant legitimacy to the 1967 borders and treat subsequent territorial acquisitions—including East Jerusalem—as disputed territory subject to negotiations. Israel has never accepted the 1967 boundaries as legitimate. The idea that territories gained by Israel in 1967 have to be “swapped” for equal territorial concessions from Israel proper is offensive to many Israelis.

For two years, President Obama has been trying to entice the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table—first by trying to get Israel to agree to a settlement freeze and now by treating the 1967 borders as a base line for negotiations. The idea is to stop a UN vote to create a Palestinian state that might isolate the U.S. and Israel diplomatically. The Obama Administration wants to offer other alternatives to the status quo.

But Israel is clinging to the status quo. And it has an ally: the U.S. Congress. Every President, Republican and Democrat, has had confrontations with Israel. It comes with the job.

As a wag put it back in the 1980s, “The problem isn’t Begin. The problem isn’t Reagan. The problem is the problem.”

Every Congress bails Israel out. It has been said that “without Congress, there would be no Israel.” That is why pro-Israel groups like AIPAC pay much more attention to Congress than to the executive branch. And why Prime Minister Netanyahu requested an invitation to address a joint meeting of Congress. And why President Obama decided to speak about the Middle East a week before Netanyahu spoke. Both leaders have a good understanding of how American politics works.