President Barack Obama's speeches at the State Department and to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee provoked strong reactions in among Jews. Some castigated the president, particularly for his reference to the pre-1967 lines "with land swaps" as the basis for Palestinian-Israeli talks. Others lauded Mr. Obama for his clear support for Israel as a Jewish state and for his emphasis on negotiations, and not on imposed or unilateral steps.
Overall, I come out more on the side of believing that these addresses represent a marked improvement in the president's evolution regarding Israel and the region. We appreciate Mr. Obama's effort to lay out his goals for U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa, with some significant new perspectives on the peace process. And we welcome his efforts to clarify what he meant with respect to his views of the 1967 lines, Israel's security and Hamas.
Even with regard to his comments on the pre-1967 lines, which would have been better left unsaid, he in no way presented them as a prerequisite for starting negotiations, which was his great blunder when he introduced the settlements issue early in his administration.
And yet, the genie is out of the bottle.
Even though the president never made the 1967 lines a prerequisite for talks, it easily can become so unless specifically rejected as such. I'm concerned that the pre-1967 lines will become a precondition for talks with the Palestinians, much in the same way a full settlement freeze became the major sticking point at the outset of the Obama administration's peacemaking efforts. It prejudges an extremely sensitive issue, one which the president will have a tough time taking back.
This was evident in the Palestinian response to Obama's speech. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, made clear he is waiting for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "to accept the doctrine of two states on the 1967 line with agreed swaps." This came despite the president's clarification at AIPAC that final borders must be resolved "by the parties themselves" through negotiations, and are not a foregone conclusion.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in a recent interview with Newsweek, described how the Obama administration led the Palestinians "up the tree" with its insistence on a full freeze on Israeli settlement building, only to retreat down that tree and remove the ladder, leaving the Palestinians stranded on a high limb and calling for them to "jump." As a result of Obama's latest speeches, that settlements tree is no longer standing. But now we have a new set of issues, including borders, which could either provide a new way forward, or end in a cul-de-sac.
The real test will be how Washington approaches these issues over the next few months. Here's a few of the things that need to happen to ensure the themes expressed by the president begin to take form:
· The United States must impress upon the Europeans that it is counterproductive and dangerous for them not to oppose a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September. This means demanding that the Europeans use their influence with the Palestinians and the Arabs to try to forestall bringing the issue of statehood to the United Nations in the first place.
· Washington must make clear to President Abbas that the recent Fatah unity agreement with Hamas undermines the credibility of the Palestinian Authority regarding peace with Israel. Fatah must publicly reject any role for the terrorist group in its government, unless Hamas recognizes Israel, renounces violence and accepts previous agreements.
If the Hamas issue is resolved, the United States must reaffirm the president's statement that peace can only come through negotiations between the parties and not through any outside impositions.
· Finally, the president's extremely important iteration that Israel must be accepted as a Jewish state sends an important message to the Palestinians. Their refusal to acknowledge Israel as Jewish is one of several positions and steps that raise questions as to whether they have made the leap toward accepting Israel's legitimacy.
When the Palestinians refused to accept then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak's formulation of an end of the conflict at Camp David in 2000, it raised alarms as to whether they saw negotiations as a means to live in peace with Israel, or as a stage in a continuing conflict.
There still is reason to wonder. There's no evidence the Palestinians have backed off their longstanding demand of the "right of return" of refugees. This issue, more than any other, is the indicator of where the Palestinians stand. As long as they maintain their position, then there is good reason to conclude they haven't really accepted Israel's legitimacy.
Any solution to the refugee problem must be one that does not threaten Israel and its Jewish character, and must primarily lie within a Palestinian state.
Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.