Israel's '67 borders have long been at root of peace debate

JERUSALEM — Despite the Israeli government's distress over President Barack Obama's address Thursday on Middle East issues, veterans of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks say there was little new in what the president proposed — and little chance that Israel would be forced into an agreement it found intolerable.

Even Obama's invocation of Israel's 1967 borders as the starting point for a peace settlement was hardly change, despite statements from officials in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. President Bill Clinton made essentially the same suggestion in 2000 and President George W. Bush acknowledged as much in a 2004 letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"Netanyahu, and every other official, knows that '67 will be the basis for borders," said an Israeli official in Jerusalem who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "It is all posturing so that they can get what they want out of their friends in Washington."

Columnist Aluf Benn, writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, even called Obama's speech a "major diplomatic victory for Israel."

"Netanyahu could not have asked for more," Benn wrote. "Obama outright rejects Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' recognition campaign, as well as the Palestinian reconciliation agreement," a reference to the recently signed unity pact between the rival Fatah and Hamas Palestinian factions.

Still, the 1967 border issue rankled. Netanyahu raised it again as he sat next to Obama Friday in the White House, flatly rejecting the president's suggestion that peace talks should start with those borders.

"It cannot go back to the 1967 lines. These lines are indefensible," Netanyahu said, leaning forward in his chair, repeating a decades-old Israeli complaint that its original borders created a country so narrow at one point that it could easily be overrun.

More accurately, the 1967 border — which roughly defines the West Bank and Gaza as a future Palestinian state — should be called the 1949 Armistice Line, since it was drawn by the United Nations based on the positions Israeli and Arab forces held when they stopped fighting in 1949.

Those lines, for example, split Jerusalem between a western portion, held by the Israelis, and an eastern, Arab side.

The 1967 Six Day War saw Israel capture East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, largely ending Israeli worries about its indefensible borders. Israel returned the Sinai as part of its 1979 peace agreement with Egypt, dismantling settlements there, a course it also followed in 2005 when it withdrew from Gaza.

What to do about the West Bank and East Jerusalem is a more difficult problem, however. More than 500,000 Jewish settlers live in what had been East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Most of them inhabit large settlement areas that are really suburbs of the major cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and Israeli officials have argued consistently that they'll remain part of a greater Israel.

Clinton's 2000 plan would have used the 1967 boundaries as a foundation for a peace agreement. The plan would have allowed Israel to remain in control of about 80 percent of the settlers outside the armistice line but would have required the country to turn over some pre-1967 Israeli territory to Palestinian control in return.

The government that ruled Israel at the time tentatively agreed, but after a right-wing government took control in 2001, the negotiations stopped. In 2004, President Bush acknowledged that the "1949 Armistice Line" had been the point of departure for peace talks, but said it wasn't practical to expect Israel to return to those borders.

That Obama's effort to essentially revisit Clinton's plan drew such official Israeli anger is in part due to the continued rightward drift of Israeli politics since Clinton first pushed his plan, and a longing for the days when Bush and the Republicans were in office.

Successive polls conducted in Israel show that each year the public becomes less inclined to withdraw from the major settlement blocs, and more apathetic to the peace talks. The most recent survey, taken just days ago by Danny Danon, a right-wing lawmaker from Netanyahu's Likud Party, found that 54 percent of Israelis support the settlements.

Palestinians, meanwhile, have become entrenched in internal political debate. At the start of this month, Palestinian leaders announced that they were forming a unity government between the long-feuding Fatah and Hamas parties.

The gulf between Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and the militant Islamist group Hamas, which violently seized control of Gaza, remains prominent, however.

In response to Obama's speech, Abbas' Fatah Party adopted a "wait and see" approach, expressing anger that Obama wouldn't support the Palestinians' planned bid for statehood when the United Nations General Assembly meets in September, but seeming otherwise unperturbed by what he'd said.

Hamas, however, slammed the speech as a "gift" to Israel. In harsh terms, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said that Obama had betrayed the Palestinians and made it impossible for negotiations to continue.

That reaction is one reason Netanyahu's government probably has little cause to worry about Obama's proposal, Benn noted in his column. The speech also outlined positions on other peace-related issues that essentially adopt the Israeli views.

"Netanyahu has nothing to worry about," Benn wrote. "There is no chance the Palestinian leadership will agree to return to negotiations under these principles."

Then why all the posturing over the mention of the 1967 boundaries?

The Israeli official who spoke under the condition of anonymity said the reason had as much to do with U.S. politics as anything else.

"Nothing short of the enthusiasm of George Bush would have satisfied Israel," the Israeli official said. "Now Bibi (Netanyahu) is in D.C. and I'm sure he will grit his teeth through the meetings, and cry on the shoulders of his Republican friends."

Bush was the "ideal U.S. president" for Israel, the Israeli official said.

"He made few demands and offered every guarantee," he said.

Yaron London, one of the hosts of Israel's version of "60 Minutes," quipped Friday during a panel discussion with other journalists that Netanyahu was nostalgic for "the good old days, when White House Mideast speeches were written in Jerusalem." The other journalists laughed.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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