from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

President Obama’s Middle East Speech

May 20, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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I was unfavorably impressed by President Obama’s speech yesterday, and explained why both at the CFR web site and at greater length in National Review.

The President’s remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were off the mark.   As I noted in National Review:

"President Obama also said the “borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” It is worth comparing how President Bush described the agreed, negotiated borders he sought for the Israelis and Palestinians in that 2004 letter: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, 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 Obama language is a shift away from Israel and toward the Palestinians."

My friend Rob Satloff, who leads the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, made a powerful comment on the speech:

"Perhaps more than anything else, the most surprising aspect of the president’s peace process statement was that it moved substantially toward the Palestinian position just days after the Palestinian Authority decided to seek unity and reconciliation with Hamas. Indeed, the president seemed nonplussed that Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, has opted for unity with Hamas, a group the United States views as a terrorist organization. This reconciliation with Hamas "raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel," the president noted -- but evidently not questions so profound and troubling to the United States that they would impede a shift in U.S. policy that advantages the Palestinians."

In this context, the President’s speech to AIPAC on Sunday becomes even more interesting.  Will the President now add elements that were missing yesterday--such as a statement that the Palestinian refugee issue must be resolved in Palestine and not in Israel?  Will he correct his remarks on the "1967 lines?"  It is impossible to say, in part due to the mysterious process by which these Obama speeches are written.  Apparently this speech was being revised literally until the last moment, due to debates in the White House and changes in the President’s decisions about the speech.  Did they know what they were saying, and how far they were tipping toward the Palestinian view?  Did they mean to undermine the Israeli negotiating position?  Those questions will be easier to answer after Sunday.

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