By DeWayne Wickham
Putting aside Mark Twain’s sage observation that “no nation…occupies a foot of land that was not stolen,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to let a return to his country’s 1967 borders become the basis for a peace settlement is foolhardy for another reason.
It sees the future as the past.
Netanyahu’s objection is stubbornly rooted in a belief that the Jewish state and its neighbors will be forever in a perpetual state of war. That myopia is a prescription for continued stalemate, and more conflict, not a meaningful peace agreement.
This intransigence is exactly what Netanyahu signaled when he arrogantly lectured Barack Obama before television cameras during his recent White House visit. The president’s call for a return to the borders that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War, as a starting point for a renewed effort to broker a peace deal between Israel and its Arab neighbors, is unacceptable for two reasons, the Israeli leader said.
One is because Israel’s old borders are “indefensible,” and the other is that it “doesn’t take into account…demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years,” Netanyahu said.
But, as Obama surely understands, peace is the best protector of any country’s borders, not some sort of geographic Maginot Line – which the katyusha rocket and Arab sappers have shown to be no less impregnable than the physical one France built to stave off World War II.
The other reason for Netanyahu’s unyielding position on Obama’s peace proposal is Israel’s longstanding policy of building Jewish settlements – in violation of United Nations resolutions – in territory it seized during the 1967 war. Those old borders, Netanyahu told Obama, “were the boundaries of repeated war.” These settlements are a human buffer that Netanyahu thinks will ensure Israel’s survival – and the real flashpoint of any effort to end the quasi war that now exists.
“The Obama administration has been encouraging Netanyahu to give them something to work with” in its effort to broker a peace deal. Netanyahu gave them nothing,” Daniel Levy, a senior research fellow and co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, told me.
The president’s call for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians based “on the 1967 (borders) with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both sides is a laudable attempt to break new ground that takes Netanyahu “out of his comfort zone,” said Levy, who was a special adviser to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.
That’s because Netanyahu is a war leader for whom peace is an armistice, not a quest for harmony.
To allow Netanyahu’s uncompromising position to prevail is to permit the egrat to command the rhinoceros. It is a longstanding American policy, as old as the Jewish state itself, that Israel has a right to exist. Obama has reaffirmed this commitment to Israel’s survival. “Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable,” Obama said in a major Middle East foreign policy speech at the State Department shortly before Netanyahu arrived in the United State.
But Israel undermines this commitment with its settlement program and its refusal to even contemplate a peace agreement that recognizes the pre-1967 territorial borders of Palestine as the beginning point of the search for a lasting peace.
On this issue Netanyahu has dug in his heels. Obama must respond with a tough love insistence that the Israeli prime minister ensures Israel’s future by giving peace a chance now.