In his speech on the Middle East peace process yesterday, Obama stated, “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” The front page of today’s Washington Post, as reported by Scott Wilson, covered Obama’s statement with this curious paragraph:
The formulation goes beyond principles outlined by President George W. Bush, who stated during his first term that “it is unrealistic to expect” Israel to pull back to the 1967 boundaries, which were based on cease-fire lines established in 1949.
Other newspapers seized on the same angle. The New York Times, which said it was a “subtle, but significant, shift in American policy,” wrote:
While the 1967 borders have long been viewed as the foundation for a peace agreement, Mr. Obama’s formula of land swaps to compensate for disputed territory created a new benchmark for a diplomatic solution.
Both papers’ assertions were presented as matters of fact, not analysis. To wit, neither of their accounts presented analysts to back up the respective claims that Obama’s “formulation goes beyond” the things that Bush said or that Obama “created a new benchmark.” The Post’s editorial board, however, did note that these assessments are a matter of analysis.
In contrast, its cross-town rival, the Washington Times, while focusing its story on Netanyahu and other Israeli’s objections to the remark, took a more objective posture, implicitly acknowledging that taking a broad view of one sentence of Obama’s speech required expert interpretation. Times journalist Eli Lake offered up not only an analyst to back up the notion that a shift had taken place, but also presented a countering perspective from another respected analyst:
Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria, said he thought the speech made concessions to Israelis and Palestinians.
“I think people are taking what the president said on the ‘67 borders totally out of context,” he said…
Mr. Djerejian said the idea that the 1967 borders would be the basis for negotiations has been a “constant since the 1991 Madrid talks.”
Aaron David Miller, an adviser to six secretaries of state on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, disagreed.
“This is the first time an American president in a high-profile, much-anticipated speech put out the concept of 1967 borders and mutually agreeable swaps without softening it for the Israelis with any kind of context,” said Mr. Miller…
Miller’s analysis, Netanyahu’s objections, and Lake’s piece all centered on a letter sent by Bush to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thanking the Israeli leader for his plan to unilaterally disengage from Gaza. Bush wrote of his understanding that Israeli settlements in the West Bank had created “new realities on the ground” and that it would be “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”
This basis for attacking Obama’s comments yesterday does not hold water. The comment on the “1967 lines” in Obama’s Middle East address also contained the caveat that there would be mutually agreed swaps” of territory. Few of the right-wing critics who blasted Obama acknowledged this caveat.
Furthermore, as WonkRoom pointed out yesterday, Bush made comments in the Rose Garden in 2005 mentioning the 1949 Armistice line — which effectively refers to the “1967 lines” that Obama cited in his remark — and agreed swaps. Bush’s language was very similar to Obama’s:
Any final status agreement must be reached between the two parties, and changes to the 1949 Armistice lines must be mutually agreed to.
In 2002, laying out his “roadmap for peace”, Bush made a speech where he said that in a final peace deal “the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 will be ended.” A draft plan of the “roadmap” leaked to the New York Times that year contained almost identical language. Neither of the examples, nor a reference to UN Security Council resolution 242, made any caveats about mutually agreeable land swaps, and yet Bush was not attacked for wanting Israel to be destroyed.
Obama’s comment yesterday doesn’t seem to even be a major change from the language used by his predecessor, let alone a “significant” policy shift” or a “new benchmark” or “formulation.” Indeed, he reiterated the 1967 starting point and expanded on the caveat of “mutually agreed swaps” in an interview with the BBC Thursday night after his address.
Many analysts thought there was nothing new in the policy, among them neoconservative Obama critics (“not a radical departure from past policy”) and Council on Foreign Relations scholars (“does not fundamentally depart from previous ideas and formulations”).
That analysts disagree on this point of nuance — and that’s what it is — should not be surprising. That supposedly objective journalists would take such bold positions on the remark and, without citing such analysts, report them as fact seems “disingenuous and irresponsible.”