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Obama Peace Vision Sparks New Disputes

In his Middle East speech, Barack Obama offered policy prescriptions that largely toed the Israeli line, making Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aggressive reaction all the more stultifying.

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Inter Press Service

"The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognised borders are established for both states." The seemingly neutral and quasi-consensual principle laid out by U.S. President Barack Obama in his May 19 policy address on the current state of affairs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region was all the more harmless that it was buried in the last quarter of his speech.

Yet, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately took to the stage – even before his arrival to Washington for his much anticipated meeting at the White House – and bluntly dismissed the 1967 borders as "indefensible".

Reports abounded in the Israeli media of a new crisis of confidence in U.S.-Israel relations, of the rekindled flames of mutual dislike between the two leaders, of a "furious" telephone exchange between Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the eve of the summit. The body language at the meeting at the Oval Room was also painstakingly dissected.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak tried to strike a more reassuring and optimistic note when declaring that the Friday meeting "was a lot less dramatic than it appeared," while stressing that the gaps between the two leaders were smaller than they seemed. Barak added, "I think the Americans know well the nuances of our positions."

The Netanyahu statement from his spokesman in the U.S. reiterating that "the differences of opinion are among friends" didn't assuage Israeli concerns back home. With such allies who needs enemies, caustically noted Israeli commentators.

What are those "nuances of positions" that provoked the ire of the Israeli Premier? After all, as a disconcerted U.S. State Department official stressed, Obama's speech was "good for Israel – and, certainly good for Netanyahu's vision of Israel."

Didn’t the President go out of his way to firmly reject the Palestinian endeavour for UN-endorsed recognition of statehood without negotiations as de-legitimisation campaign of Israel that "won't create an independent state"? He demanded that the Palestinians explain the recent reconciliation agreement between the nationalist Fatah movement and Hamas and provide "a credible answer" to "the legitimate questions" raised by the Islamic movement's refusal to recognise Israel's right to exist.

Obama also adopted the Netanyahu security doctrine of a "non-militarised" Palestine and a "phased withdrawal" from the occupied territories? And, he embraced Netanyahu's old-new credo of a "Jewish State".

Besides, what Obama didn't spell out was also good for the Israeli leader. He didn't demand a renewed freeze on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank in the first place. He actually mentioned the settlement issue in one quick sentence while construction of 1,500 housing units was officially approved in occupied East Jerusalem.

And, he didn't even mention the Israeli Left's peace advocacy credo, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that proposes an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict in exchange for the Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories (the 1967 lines), a recognition of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital, as well as a "just solution" for the Palestinian refugees.

So what was wrong with Netanyahu, asked some Israelis, flabbergasted at the prospect of increasing alienation, what's more, from their country's strongest ally?

Netanyahu seems to have wanted to create an artificial dispute, purposefully ignoring the Obama "land swap" and "Jewish State" principles of peace. What are borders based on the pre-1967 ceasefire lines with territorial swaps if not the realisation that, in any future agreement, Israel will retain major settlement blocks that have taken hold in the West Bank over the past 40-plus years.

And, if Israel is to be recognised "as a Jewish State and the homeland of the Jewish people", it signifies to the Palestinians that their refugees will return to Palestine, not to Israel, a key Israeli demand.

"I don't think that the President said it was necessary to return to the 1967 lines, but rather that we need to start the discussion based on the 1967 borders," said Barak.

The real problem for Netanyahu – and for his centrist opposition – lies precisely in the synchronisation of the elements of a peace deal. Obama suggested that future negotiations should grapple first with the security and territorial dimension of the conflict. Other core issues, "the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees", should be broached at a later stage.

Israelis fear that these principles will create a de facto interim agreement with no end of conflict and demands in sight. "Instead of presenting the 1967 borders as the end of the process, Obama made them its start. Instead of tying them to the end of demands and the end of the conflict, they were tied to greater demands and continued conflict," columnist Ari Shavit bemoaned in the liberal daily Haaretz.

Netanyahu outflanked his right-wing coalition by implying that he stands further to the Right. Wrapped in the flag of national dismay, with the Right firmly united behind him, he's trying to hamstring the Obama peace principles by testing the limitation of their effectiveness.

It's a laborious enough task to present a coherent U.S. doctrine in the face of the indecisive upheaval convulsing the Arab world. And, with raising expectations of recognition of Palestine, with or without U.S. approval, it might prove even harder to establish a coherent peace vision – especially if no clear plan of action is advanced by the U.S. before September as a basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace-making and Palestinian state-building. That's what Netanyahu is counting on.

It is often said that attack is the best form of defence. Netanyahu went a step further in implementing the proverbial adage. He tackled his host on his own home turf. The almost offensive conduct was designed to neutralise the broad U.S. vision of national and individual self-determination for all the peoples of the region in the hope that he will eventually reduce the vision of Palestinian self- determination to mere tactical manoeuvring.

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