JERUSALEM — President Barack Obama on Thursday finally uttered the words the Palestinians had been waiting to hear for two years: that the basis for border talks with Israel is the pre-1967 war line.
Now the question is whether this will be enough to get them to drop plans to ask the U.N. General Assembly in September to recognize their state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — areas Israel captured in 1967 — and instead return to the negotiations.
Even if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were to choose the politically costly option of aborting the U.N. bid, the road to a resumption of talks, let alone a peace deal, would be long.
Abbas is meeting with leaders of the PLO and his Fatah movement on Friday to decide on the next move, and senior officials said they were ordered not to speak to reporters before. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' normally talkative top negotiator, issued only a brief and cryptic statement saying Abbas wants to give Obama's efforts "the chance they deserve."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, en route to the United States, fired off a statement saying he would ask Obama during their White House meeting Friday what was meant by the 1967 lines — an idea rendered pliable by the president's additional phrase about "mutually agreed swaps" of land.
Obama's comments Thursday, during his Mideast speech, marked a change in tactics for the U.S. president, said David Makovsky, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Up to now, the Obama administration had tried to summarize the positions of each party, but had not taken a position.
For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently called for talks on a deal which "reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps," with Israel's demands.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the new formulation, endorsing the pre-1967 cease-fire line, was done in the hopes of dissuading the Palestinians from going ahead with their U.N. plan.
"What was done today is that the U.S. took a descriptive position and turned it into a prescriptive position, setting new terms of reference, for new peace negotiations," Makovsky said. "It's a definite shift for the Obama administration, though not historically out of character for the U.S."
Scott Lasensky, an analyst with the U.S. Institute of Peace, agreed: "The U.S. is now formally on record, in no uncertain terms, advocating for an initial deal based on the 1967 lines, with land swaps, and agreed security provisions. The administration had danced around that formulation for some time, but typically had framed it as an aspiration of the parties---rather than U.S. policy."
In 2000, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton had laid out parameters for a future peace deal, proposing that the Palestinians keep all of Gaza and up to 96 percent of the West Bank, while Israel would annex areas where it has settled Jews in east Jerusalem and some Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinians would be compensated in a land swap.
Obama did not discuss the extent of the swaps. Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, sought to annex 6.5 percent of the West Bank, including some of the largest Jewish settlements, to Israel, and offered an equal amount of Israeli land in exchange. Abbas said he was ready to swap no more than 1.9 percent, which means the vast majority of settlements would have to go.
Those talks broke off in 2008, and Netanyahu has since adopted more hard-line positions.
For Netanyahu, as head of the right-wing Likud, it is a major leap that he is willing to state, as he did in Israel's parliament on Monday, that he would acquiesce to a Palestinian state in the strategic highland of the West Bank and in the coastal Gaza Strip.
But the Israeli leader still rejects a division of Jerusalem, wants to keep troops along the Jordan River on the Palestinian state's eastern flank, and wants to retain major blocs of Jewish settlements — almost certainly including the settlement of Ariel right in the middle of the northern West Bank.
Could all that possibly occur under "mutually agreed swaps"? Few observers seem to think so.
In a statement Thursday, Netanyahu said that "the viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state."
He said he would ask Obama for a "reaffirmation" of commitments made by President George Bush in a 2004 letter to Israeli premier Ariel Sharon that "relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible."
Referring to Israel's settlements, Bush wrote: "In light of new realities on the ground ... 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" — a term synonymous with the pre-1967 borders. The Obama Administration has said it did not consider that letter binding.
The question has been around ever since Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza, east Jerusalem and other territories in the 1967 Middle East war. A few months later Security Council Resolution 242 called for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict," avoiding use of "the territories" and leaving the sides to debate whether this meant Israel could keep some areas.
Abbas has repeatedly asked Obama to present his own outlines for a final deal, particularly aiming for an unequivocal statement that the 1967 borders are the basis for negotiations.
Having lost patience, and having failed to secure the Israeli settlement freeze Obama himself has called for, the Palestinians have turned to a different plan: Going to the General Assembly for recognition in September.
But that is a problematic gambit, because it takes the Security Council to set membership in motion, and the Palestinians face a likely U.S. veto in that forum. The General Assembly can only recommend and issue calls; although the Palestinians have a near-certain majority there, the outcome promises to be messy and there are some concerns about how Palestinians will react after all the buildup perhaps yields little change on the ground.
It's not clear whether Obama's speech went far enough in coaxing the Palestinians back to negotiations. He did not specifically call on Israel to halt settlement construction. And he also said Israel must be "the homeland for the Jewish people," which suggests a precluding of any Palestinian demands for a "right of return" of large numbers of Palestinian refugees and descendants.
Bassem Zbeidy, a Palestinian analyst, said the speech did not meet Palestinian expectations — and added that he was concerned that Obama criticized the Palestinians' planned U.N. bid and Abbas' recent reconciliation agreement with Hamas, considered a terror organization by the U.S., Europe and Israel: "This is very bad news since he (Obama) is basically accusing the Palestinians of isolating Israel and condoning terrorism. I see this speech as a few steps backwards."
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