Israel will have to relent

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President Barack Obama’s latest address on the Middle East alarmed the Israeli government. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had tried in vain to have the passage deleted which envisages an emerging Arabic state within the 1967 boundaries. Yet Obama insisted on exactly that phrasing, which will serve as a blueprint for the borders of the future Palestine.

Why does Obama’s frontier concept pose such a threat to Netanyahu and his government? The assertion that Jerusalem steadfastly rules out giving up any territory and is categorically unwilling to vacate Jewish settlements is verifiably wrong. In 1979, Israel pledged in the Camp David peace agreement with Egypt to evacuate the entire Egyptian Sinai Peninsula occupied in 1967 – including the Israeli settlements. This promise was given despite fierce domestic protests.

More than 20 years later, in 2000, Israeli armed forces completely vacated the buffer zone in southern Lebanon, occupied in 1982. Finally in 2005, the Israelis left the Palestinian Gaza Strip. The Jewish settlements on this territory were also abandoned – without Israel receiving a peace agreement with Hamas in return.

Jerusalem would also be willing to restore the occupied Golan Heights to Syria. In return, Damascus would only have to sign a peace agreement with Israel and establish regular diplomatic and economic relations with the Jewish state.

Moreover, Netanyahu pledged shortly after his inauguration as prime minister two years ago in an international press conference at Bar-Ilan University that Israel would accept a Palestinian state at its side – and establish peaceful relations with it.

So what triggered the dogged resistance against Obama’s plan to establish a Palestinian state within the boundaries of 1967? Israel’s and Netanyahu’s opposition in particular are based on a number of reasons: Before the war of 1967, Israel’s coastal strip, the Sharon Plain between Haifa in the north and Tel Aviv in the south, was only 9 to 13 miles wide. Two thirds of the Israeli population lives within this “wasp waist.” Ben Gurion, the country’s only international airport, is located there. If the Jewish state were to retreat to the area within the 1967 boundaries the most densely populated and economically important centers of Israel as well as its overseas connections would be extremely jeopardized.

Furthermore, until 1967 the Israeli capital of Jerusalem was separated. The crucial religious sites, above all the Wailing Wall and the Temple Mount, were located on Jordanian territory, as was the entire historical old town of Jerusalem. Unlike the West Bank, East Jerusalem was annexed by Israeli law and declared the “eternal capital” of Israel. Around the city a number of Jewish settlements were built on Arabic land. Today, 250,000 Israelis live there.

Obama traveled to Israel during his election campaign in 2008. He visited the Wailing Wall and shortly after that reassured the members of the Jewish lobby group AIPAC in Washington that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel.

Thanks to his left-liberal position, but also due to his unambiguous pro-Israel statement Obama managed to win 76 percent of the Jewish vote in the US. Now, however, the president is experiencing what Israel’s former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once described as: “When you’re in office things look different and you have to politically react accordingly.”

This is also Obama’s fate. For him, the current revolution in the Arab world, a region where 300 million people live and which holds the world’s largest oil reserves, is in the center of American interests. A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would pacify the region and would increase the US sphere of influence. Yet Israel does not want to pay the price for that in terms of diminished security.

In addition, Netanyahu and Obama share an irreparable mutual antipathy. Obama is a rationalist. He is convinced that conflicts can be resolved by balancing out interests. Netanyahu, who studied in the US, is an Israeli nationalist. His brother died in the war against Palestinian terrorists. He considers Israel’s security existentially threatened by Iran and its allies. The participation in Palestinian government of Hamas, which denies Israel’s right to exist and seeks to wage a violent struggle against it, is giving an additional edge to Israel’s concerns. Netanyahu is banking on stalling resistance, with the Jewish lobby in the US supporting him vigorously. However, a new Jewish interest group has formed under the name of J-Street, which is backing Obama’s pressure on Netanyahu.

Eventually Washington and Jerusalem will find a compromise. Both parties share a number of strategic, political and societal interests and convictions. Yet small Israel will have to relent on key issues. The country depends on its large ally. Both sides know this.