Obama Didn’t Shift U.S. Policy On Israel — A Look Back At The Record

May 27, 2011 10:52 a.m.

There has been so much uproar in the last week over President Obama’s statements about Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations beginning around 1967 borders – along with land swaps — that TPM wanted to lay out the record on whether this policy really amounted to a shift – if even ever so slightly – from the policies of previous administrations.

Prime Minister Netanyahu flat-out rejected any return to 1967 boundaries a week ago Friday during a tense meeting at the White House, saying that such a plan was “indefensible.” Days later, to rapturous applause at a joint session of Congress, he once again turned down any suggestion that Israel withdraw to its 1967 borders, although by then he and Obama appeared to have mended some fences after Obama gave a speech to the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee reiterating his commitment to Israel as close friend and ally.

But does Obama’s position constitute a tangible shift in U.S. policy towards the peace process, or is it merely an affirmation of a long-recognized understanding?There are times when previous administrations seem to have spoken Obama’s argument nearly verbatim and times when they parsed their words a little more carefully. But the basic point was the same — that a future peace plan must be based upon the 1967 lines with adjustments or “land swaps” as needed. Perhaps the only difference was a subtle shift in emphasis and the fact that Obama’s statement was the first time he, as President, explicitly referred to the 1967 boundaries, a long-running flash-point.

The events of the last week have made a return to the negotiating table by both sides seem all but impossible. Netanyahu and Israel’s hardline allies are bracing for a United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood at the General Assembly in September, and Palestinians are calling for that recognition to be based on 1967 borders as well. If that vote is successful, Israel could quickly face a scenario in which it is occupying not just Palestinian lands, but a Palestinian state, recognized by much of the world.

Here we’ve laid out some of the most telling policy statements from past presidents and administration officials that show uniformity on the issue of borders. An editorial by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria pointed out three instances where government positions matched Obama’s statement nearly verbatim, and we include them below.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in November 2009: “We [support]…the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps.”

Some background on this quote: People who claim that Obama’s comments constituted a policy shift maintain that Clinton’s wording of “Palestinian goal” of 1967 lines does not equate to official U.S. policy on the matter.

Here’s the longer version of the quote:

“We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.”

Here is what Netanyahu’s immediate predecessor, Ehud Olmert, said in a speech to the Israeli Knesset in 2008: “We must give up Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and return to the core of the territory that is the State of Israel prior to 1967, with minor corrections dictated by the reality created since then.”

From the aforementioned Zakaria piece: “Olmert, a man with a reputation as a hard-liner, said that meant Israel would keep about 6 percent of the West Bank – the major settlements – and give up land elsewhere. This was also the position of Ehud Barak, Israel’s prime minister during the late 1990s.”

President George W. Bush made his most explicit call for an end to the Israeli occupation after making his first visit to the West Bank in January 2008 :

“The point of departure for permanent status negotiations to realize this vision seems clear: there should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967,” he said.
He insisted it would be possible to reach a peace agreement within a year. The future borders of a Palestinian state, he said, would “require mutually agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949 to reflect current realities”.

The armistice lines mark where the boundary stood on the eve of the six-day war in 1967 before Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. His phrase “current realities” suggested Israel keeping some of the settlement blocs in the West Bank, in line with a letter he sent to the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon three years prior.

Here is George W. Bush in 2008: “I believe that any peace agreement between them will require mutually agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949 to reflect current realities and to ensure that the Palestinian state is viable and contiguous.”

George W. Bush put the emphasis on recognizing that the 1967 borders without swaps would be unrealistic, in an April 14, 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon:

“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. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”

The Middle East Quartet’s Roadmap for Peace in April 2003, supported by President George W. Bush, began with these words: “A settlement, negotiated between the parties, will result in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors. The settlement will resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and end the occupation that began in 1967. …”

In his last few weeks in office, President Bill Clinton laid out what are known as the “Clinton parameters,” an attempt to sketch out a negotiating solution to create two states. These parameters issued in December 2000 (though withdrawn before the end of Clinton’s term) contain explicit language on “land swaps” but shy away from any reference to 1967 lines:

“Based on what I heard, I believe that the solution should be in the mid-90%’s, between 94-96% of the West Bank territory of the Palestinian State. The land annexed by Israel should be compensated by a land swap of 1-3% in addition to territorial arrangements such as a permanent safe passage.

The Parties also should consider the swap of leased land to meet their respective needs. There are creative ways of doing this that should address Palestinian and Israeli needs and concerns.”

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