A few lessons from a crazy week:
1) If you come spoiling for a fight, you are going to get one.
This applies to both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. The president didn’t break much new diplomatic ground in his speech to the State Department. He’s at least the fourth president to support negotiations for a two-state solution that take as their starting point the 1967 borders. I mean, look at a map — the very notion of a “West Bank” only makes sense in the context of territories gained in Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.
Obama’s hidush was a rhetorical one: “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.” Previous administrations have managed to talk about negotiated borders without raising the specter of 1967. It’s a subtle difference but one the president had to know would raise hackles in Israel. If he wanted to put Israel on notice — and apparently he did — he succeeded.
That being said, Obama left enough wiggle room — not counting his condemnation of Hamas, rejection of unilateral Palestinian statehood, and reiteration of America’s commitment to Israel’s security — to have allowed Netanyahu to let it slide. “Should be based on” is not the same as “return to,” although Bibi chose to ignore the distinction.
Why Bibi feels it is in Israel’s best interest to underline his disagreements with the president is beyond me — unless he is looking to a new Republican interlocutor after 2012 and, to the extent that he has sway over American Jews, is happy to help that process along. That’s a mighty big gamble — and a worrisome departure from decades of principled bipartisanship on the part of Israel and its American supporters.
2) If everything is Auschwitz, nothing is Auschwitz.
Speaking of itching for a fight, Obama’s critics on the pro-Israel Right were almost gleeful in jumping on the president’s “1967” reference. A few, including the Zionist Organization of America and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, invoked the odious phrase “Auschwitz borders” to refer to the pre-1967 lines.
A little background: The concept is attributed to Abba Eban, who told Der Spiegel the following in 1969: “We have openly said that the map will never again be the same as on June 4, 1967 [that is, before the Six-Day War]. For us, this is a matter of security and of principles. The June map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger. I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz.”
Eban’s statement is hard to reconcile with his reputation as the consummate dove. I’ve always felt it must be understood in context: Only two years after Israel’s shocking victory in the Six-Day War, Eban and his countrymen were still absorbing what they had gained in the war and the security implications. With surrounding armies still licking their wounds, Israel would have been mad to relinquish the buffer zones they had won in the Sinai, the West Bank, and in the north.
Over the ensuing decades, however, Israel’s prime ministers understood that Israel’s defense no longer depended solely on retaining land. Begin would relinquish Sinai, Sharon would withdraw from Gaza, Olmert himself spoke of the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations with the Palestinians.
In 1969, Eban was right: It would have been a national trauma were Israel to return to the vulnerabilities it had faced only two years before. But 42 years later, it is a gross distortion to suggest that Israel is facing genocide if it allows the 1967 borders to be the start of negotiations. Yes, Netanyahu pledged on Tuesday that “Israel will not return to the indefensible borders of 1967.” But he also said this: “We will be very generous on the size of a future Palestinian state…. We recognize that a Palestinian state must be big enough to be viable, independent, and prosperous.” That leaves room for compromise.
Auschwitz is the ultimate symbol of Jewish powerlessness. Israel is now in a position to negotiate, and thrive, from a position of strength.
3) There’s process, and there’s principles.
Among American Jews, and even among presidents, it is not always a question of whether you are pro-Israel or not — but what kind of pro-Israel you want to be. Too many of Obama’s critics in the past week have tried to paint support of Israel as either/or: Back Netanyahu 100 percent, or consider yourself outside the reservation. Embrace the status quo, or risk another Auschwitz.
But even passionate friends of Israel, some of whom may quibble with Obama’s tactics, are on the same page with the president when it comes to Israel’s future. They agree with Obama when he says, “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.” The demographics — and optics — are not in Israel’s favor.
The pro-Israel tent is big enough to embrace those who abhor territorial compromise, those who embrace it, and those who may find it painful to negotiate but understand, as Netanyahu told Congress, that “in a genuine peace, we will be required to give up parts of the Jewish homeland.”