The Middle East Channel

What have Obama and Netanyahu wrought?

What conclusions are to be drawn about the state of Middle East peacemaking from the extraordinary spectacle of the adversarial encounter between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their several major adversarial addresses in the second half of May? The spectacle did not bring an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement any closer. Indeed, ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

What conclusions are to be drawn about the state of Middle East peacemaking from the extraordinary spectacle of the adversarial encounter between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their several major adversarial addresses in the second half of May?

The spectacle did not bring an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement any closer. Indeed, Netanyahu’s address to the U.S. Congress, no less than Congress’s reaction to that speech, effectively buried the Middle East peace process for good. For what America’s solons were jumping up and down to applaud so wildly as they pandered pathetically to the Israel lobby was Netanyahu’s rejection of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, thus endorsing his determination to maintain permanently Israel’s colonial project in the West Bank.

If Netanyahu succeeds in his objective, these members of Congress will be able to take credit for an Israeli apartheid regime that former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert predicted would be the inescapable consequence of policies the congressmen cheered and promised to continue to support as generously as they have in the past.

Unfortunately, it is an outcome made more likely by Obama’s insistence that a United Nations resolution could never bring about Palestinian statehood. He was wrong about that. That the United Nations can create a state was affirmed and celebrated not by enemies of Israel but in Israel’s own Declaration of Independence of 1948. It is the U.N. Partition Resolution of 1947, not negotiations between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine, that is cited in that declaration as having brought about the state of Israel and the source of its legitimacy.

It is the United Nations, not Netanyahu nor even the United States, that can and should bring the state of Palestine into being — and would do so if the United States were not to prevent it. The bilateral talks with Netanyahu that Obama is insisting Palestinians return to will only continue to serve, as they have in the past, as cover for the expansion of Israeli settlements whose purpose it is to annex (i.e., steal) enough Palestinian territory to preclude the possibility of Palestinian statehood.

Does a Palestinian appeal to the United Nations imply an improper "unilateralism" that Israel and the United States accused Palestinians of? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Leaving aside the hypocrisy of accusations of unilateralism from Israel’s government, there is nothing "unilateral" about a Palestinian request to the United Nations that it help resolve a conflict that the parties have been unable to resolve on their own for nearly half a century. What is decidedly unilateral is Israel’s massive transfers of its own Jewish citizens into the occupied territories in order to create "facts on the ground" that pre-empt a negotiated settlement of the border controversy. It is also a brazen violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which was adopted by the international community to prevent a repetition of the massive Nazi transfers of their population into the territories they occupied during World War II.

An equally egregious violation of the Oslo Accords is Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem, whose future is also a permanent status issue to be negotiated by the parties.

But the real reason for the groundlessness of Obama’s criticism of the Palestinians’ decision to turn to the U.N. is that they do not intend to ask the Security Council to determine the resolution of the permanent status issues (though that is what they should be doing, for reasons argued below). Instead, they intend to ask the U.N. to recognize their declaration of national self-determination, a declaration that — by definition and by international law — can only be made unilaterally.

The right to self-determination by the majority population in a previously mandated territory is a "peremptory norm" in international law, one that overrides and nullifies conflicting treaty obligations. Yet the U.N.’s recognition of Palestinian statehood would not conflict with nor pre-empt negotiations of the permanent status issues, which would still have to be resolved between the parties. But it would confirm that negotiations of changes in the status quo ante of 1967 must begin from the 1967 lines, a position endorsed by Obama, the European Union, and virtually every country in the world.

Does Obama really prefer that Palestinians negotiate with Israel as a subject people rather than as a sovereign nation?


The speeches by Obama and Netanyahu did serve to focus the world’s attention on Israel’s 1967 border and on the concept of land swaps. Netanyahu falsely portrayed Obama’s proposal that this border serve as the starting point for negotiations over territorial swaps as locking Israel into the 1967 lines. As Obama pointed out in his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), if the purpose of the negotiations is to reach agreement on territorial swaps, then — by definition — they are intended to alter the 1967 lines, not to make them permanent. So why did Netanyahu lie, and why is he so determined to avoid negotiations over land swaps, which Palestinians are not only prepared to negotiate with Israel but in return for which they are willing to forego their request for recognition by the U.N. in September, a move Netanyahu seems terrified of?

The answer is Netanyahu lied because he knows that reciprocal land swaps would necessarily rule out his goal of preventing a Palestinian state, for Israel would have to trade parts of its own territory in return for Palestinian territory it wishes to retain. Of course, Netanyahu would not have allowed negotiations over land swaps to reach a conclusion and would have continued the expansion of Israeli "facts on the ground." While the principle that Palestinian land taken by Israel must be compensated for with Israeli land is one that he and his coalition government reject, they also do not want to be in a position of having to reject it formally, for that would expose another of Netanyahu’s lies — that he is committed to a two-state solution.

It has been reported the United States is once again trying to get the parties to resume negotiations on the basis of Obama’s proposal in his May 19 speech. But the expectation that negotiations based on the principle of land swaps would improve prospects for successful bilateral talks is entirely groundless. There is no reason to believe that Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would be able to reach agreement on such swaps more easily than on any of the other issues they have been unable to agree on. Netanyahu would use the same tactics he has used in previous bilateral talks — either refusing to reveal his stand on those issues or coming up with demands that no Palestinian leader could accept — to assure the continuation of the occupation and of Israel’s land grabs, which in fact are not only continuing but have intensified, both in Jerusalem and in the West Bank.

It is not the proposal of equal land swaps that can advance a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian accord. It is, instead, the "default setting" of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. Both resolutions affirm categorically that territory cannot be acquired –neither by the aggressor nor by the victim of aggression — as a result of war. It follows, therefore, that if Israelis and Palestinians cannot agree on adjustments in the 1967 border, the Security Council must act to restore the status quo ante, i.e. the pre-1967 border, without any changes, or with adjustments determined by the Security Council.

The default setting of these resolutions could not conceivably be that the occupier may hold on permanently to the occupied territories or may determine unilaterally how much of those territories to annex. If that were the case, resolutions 242 and 338 would have provided states that illegally occupy territory beyond their internationally recognized borders with an irresistible inducement to avoid reaching a conflict-ending accord. It is the false notion that in the absence of a peace agreement, resolutions 242 and 338 do indeed allow Israel to continue its occupation indefinitely that is responsible for Netanyahu’s expectation that he will succeed in retaining control of all of Palestine simply by putting forward conditions for a peace agreement that even the most irenic Palestinian leader could not accept.

Bottom line, Obama is wrong in his assertion that the U.N. can never bring about a Palestinian state and that only a resumed Israeli-Palestinian peace process can. The precise opposite is true. Direct negotiations, even if begun at the 1967 lines and based on land swaps, will never produce a Palestinian state. A long and unbroken history of failed direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and failed American mediation attest to that truth. Only the U.N. can produce a Palestinian state — provided, of course, that Obama does not veto the effort.

Henry Siegman, president of the U.S./Middle East Project, is a nonresident visiting research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.