A Further Examination of President Obama’s Record on Israel

November 1, 2011
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Steve Sheffey

The essays written by Stephen Zunes (“Defending Netanyahu’s Policies Does Not Help Israel”) and Matthew RJ Brodsky (“Reviewing the Obama Administration’s U.N. Record”) in response to my essay (“President Obama and the United Nations”) deserve a fuller response than space allowed in the print edition of Sh’ma. Fortunately, the digital edition provides that opportunity.

Zunes argues that the U.N. Security Council resolution1 vetoed by Obama in February was neither biased nor anti-Israel. But the resolution focused almost exclusively on settlements. An unbiased resolution would have mentioned Palestinian refusal to negotiate with Israel (when Israel did freeze settlements for ten months, the Palestinian Authority still refused to negotiate) as a major obstacle to peace, and would have also mentioned the refusal of the Arab world to accept the permanent reality of Israel as a Jewish state. The resolution was anti-Israel because it was an attempt by the Palestinians to bypass negotiations and achieve at the U.N. would they could not achieve by war, terrorism, economic boycott, or negotiating in good faith with Israel. Obama was right to stand with Israel because, as Obama said on May 19, 2011, “it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them — not by the United States; not by anybody else.”2

Zunes claims that the illegality of Israeli settlements is beyond question. One can certainly question the wisdom of certain settlements, especially settlements located in areas likely to be ceded to a future Palestinian state. But it is far from clear that the settlements are illegal. The West Bank was illegally occupied by Jordan after Israel’s War of Independence. Israel regained this part of its historic homeland only after Jordan attacked Israel in 1967. Dore Gold notes that “[f]ormer State Department Legal Advisor Stephen Schwebel, who later headed the International Court of Justice in the Hague, wrote in 1970 regarding Israel’s case: ‘Where the prior holder of territory had seized that territory unlawfully, the state which subsequently takes that territory in the lawful exercise of self-defense has, against that prior holder, better title’.”3

The West Bank can be seen as disputed territory, not occupied territory, in which Jews have equal if not better claims than the Palestinians (there was never any Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank prior to 1967).4 Reasonable minds can differ regarding the legality of the settlements, but it is far from clear, as Zunes claims, that they are illegal.

Zunes defends the Goldstone Report, but as Daniel Gordis notes in the November 2011 issue of Sh’ma (“David Ben-Gurion’s Prescience”), Judge Goldstone later largely repudiated his own work. In fact, “never in the history of human conflict…were noncombatants and civilians of a conflict been alerted to danger by an attacking force more often than in the Gaza campaign.”5

Zunes attempts to equate the U.N. recognition of Israel in 1947 with attempts by the Palestinians to gain U.N. recognition in 2011. Interested readers should read the essay by Steven Bayme in this November 2011 issue of Sh’ma (“Recognizing Israel, Recognizing Palestine: Legitimate or False Parallels?”) for a different perspective.

Meanwhile, Brodsky claims that no previous president called for a complete freeze of Israeli settlements, including natural growth. But President George W. Bush said in 2002 that “Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop.”6 His “Roadmap for Peace” explicitly required the government of Israel to freeze “all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).”7 Every American administration has opposed settlement activity.

Obama’s May 19, 2011 speech demanded no additional concessions from Israel. Its purpose, which as of this writing seems to have succeeded, was to remind our European allies that there is a viable alternative to a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state at the U.N. and that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, not unilateral action at the U.N., is best way to peace.

Mitchell Bard, the Executive Director of AICE and the Jewish Virtual Library, wrote that “Obama did not make any new demands on Israel” and that Obama actually “restated Israel’s long-standing position on 242.”8 Obama’s statement that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” is substantively identical to what George W. Bush said in 2008: “I believe that any peace agreement between them will require mutually agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949 to reflect current realities and to ensure that the Palestinian state is viable and contiguous.”9 The “armistice lines of 1949” are the 1967 lines. “Mutually agreed adjustments” are “mutually agreed land swaps.”

Brodsky questions the timing of Obama’s May 19 speech. Obama explained the timing when he spoke to AIPAC on May 22: “But the march to isolate Israel internationally — and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations — will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative. And for us to have leverage with the Palestinians, to have leverage with the Arab States and with the international community, the basis for negotiations has to hold out the prospect of success. And so, in advance of a five-day trip to Europe in which the Middle East will be a topic of acute interest, I chose to speak about what peace will require.”10

I agree with Brodsky that, in his words, “what matters more is what is done.” No American administration has done more than the Obama administration with Israel and for Israel’s security. Anthony Blinken, who serves on the administration’s national security team, listed the Obama administration’s tangible accomplishments in the Wall Street Journal on September 20, 2011.11 These accomplishments include full funding for Israel in the 2011 budget, additional funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system (which has already saved countless Israeli lives), creating an unprecedented international coalition to impose sanctions on Iran, and enhancing Israel’s qualitative military edge. And in September 2011, Newsweek reported that in 2009, Obama secretly sold advanced weaponry to Israel that the Bush administration denied to Israel.12 All this is in addition to the support for Israel cited in the Zunes essay.

1 http://123pab.com/blog/2011/02/The-draft-UNSC-resolution-that-the-USA-vetoed.php

2 http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2011/05/19/text-of-obamas-speech-on-the-middle-east/?mod=google_news_blog

3 http://www.jcpa.org/jl/vp470.htm

4 http://www.globallawforum.org/ViewPublication.aspx?ArticleId=78

5 http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3791096,00.html

6 http://middleeast.about.com/od/documents/a/me070912b.htm

7 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/2989783.stm

8 http://thejewishchronicle.net/view/full_story/14463701/article-Obama%E2%80%99s-unexpected-Pro-Israel-speech–?instance=lead_story_right_column

9 http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2008/01/20080110-3.html

10 http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/22/remarks-president-aipac-policy-conference-2011

11 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904060604576574521495803288.html

12 http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/09/23/president-obama-secretly-approved-transfer-of-bunker-buster-bombs-to-israel.html

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