Obama, Netanyahu And The 1967 Lines

Guests

Glenn Kessler, Fact Checker columnist, Washington Post
Ethan Bronner, Jerusalem bureau chief, New York Times

One line from President Obama's recent speech stirred up anger in Congress and Israel: "Borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his country will not return to those "indefensible borders."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

One week after President Obama spoke to the Arab world, all sides agree that the prospects for Middle East peace sit absolutely dead in the water.

The president's terminology on the basis for negotiations led to a public rebuke from Israel's prime minister, then Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech that drew bipartisan cheers in Congress but left Palestinian leaders to conclude that there is no basis for negotiations.

But if the Israeli-Palestinian dispute remains in stasis, the world around them continues to change. Just yesterday, the Egyptian government announced that it will open the border with Gaza as soon as this weekend, effectively ending the Israeli-imposed blockade of the territory controlled by Hamas.

What should we conclude from the words of the president and the prime minister? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the Supreme Court orders California to reduce its prison population. We'll go to Sacramento and find out how they plan to do it. But first the Middle East, and we begin with veteran diplomatic correspondent Glenn Kessler. He writes the Fact Checker column for the Washington Post and kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us.

Mr. GLENN KESSLER (Fact Checker Columnist, Washington Post): Glad to be with you.

CONAN: And let's remind everybody what the president actually had to say.

President BARACK OBAMA: We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.

CONAN: And Glenn, is that a substantial change from what presidents have said before?

Mr. KESSLER: Yes, it is. I mean, in the context of diplomacy, what President Obama said that was different was that he actually referenced 1967, the 1967 lines, the de-facto border that had basically existed since the end of the 1948 war of independence.

CONAN: So if he had said the armistice lines of 1948, would that have been different?

Mr. KESSLER: No, what I did is I researched and looked at what all previous presidents had said, and actually they never said anything about lines one way or the other.

I mean, they danced around it. Even Bill Clinton, when he was in the midst of negotiations with the Palestinians and the Israelis and thought he was very close to a deal never actually spoke about the lines because it's a bit of a -and again, like I said, it's in the context of diplomacy.

Everyone knows that if you have a peace agreement that's going to involve peace for security, when Ehud Olmert was negotiating pretty seriously with the Palestinians, it was off the 1967 lines, and it was, you know, I'll give you -you can have those settlements, and I can take that piece of land.

But by putting it right there in that speech - and the context is also important in that the administration had been trying to get Netanyahu for weeks to actually say '67 lines, and he never did. So the president decided to go out and say it himself, which if you were Bibi Netanyahu sitting there in Israel, you would say: Oh, this is his shot at me.

CONAN: He just - and so then Netanyahu stuck it to him.

Mr. KESSLER: Exactly.

CONAN: And this is - when he met with the president at the White House, there was a news conference after the meeting that was described generally as frosty, but that was the private meeting, and Netanyahu came out to talk with reporters afterwards.

Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Israel): While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines because these lines are indefensible.

CONAN: And he's referring again to the 1967 lines. And if you go back to those lines, well, yeah, at one point, Israel has a very small waist, very narrow parts. But he deliberately excluded the lines with mutually agreed land swaps.

Mr. KESSLER: Exactly, exactly, and it kind of twisted around what the president had said. And the president a few days later expanded on what he had said and tried to explain what he meant.

I mean, the one thing that was a little disingenuous on the part of Netanyahu is he calls them indefensible lines. Let's remember what happened in 1967. Israel actually defended itself pretty well from those lines against armies on all sides, and that's one reason why we're in the situation we are now because they conquered a fair amount of territory from the Arabs.

And the other point is that, you know, those lines and the effort to build settlements were intended to, you know, defend against large-scale Arab armies invading again.

But actually Israel has a peace agreement with Egypt, it has a peace agreement with Jordan, it controls the Golan Heights, which it has annexed, which makes it very difficult for Syria to attack. And so what you have is a situation where the problem is from highly sophisticated rockets and that sort of thing, which it wouldn't really matter if your lines are nine miles or 30 miles. The modern technology has made all that moot.

CONAN: Well, there's other problems with settlements in areas where the Israeli settlers want to stay, and they are an important part of the prime minister's coalition, in fact. And so he has political problems of his own.

Mr. KESSLER: Oh, exactly. And you've got to look at a lot of what was happening here in terms of domestic politics.

CONAN: Because there is - as you mentioned, his immediate predecessor, Ehud Olmert, said in a widely reported speech, I'm reading here from a column that Fareed Zakaria published in your paper this morning, a speech to the Israeli Knesset in 2008, not all that long ago.

We must give up Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and return to the core of the territory that is the state of Israel prior to 1967 with minor corrections dictated by the reality created since then.

Reality created since then, he's referring to settlements.

Mr. KESSLER: Exactly.

CONAN: And that doesn't sound an awful lot different from what President Obama said.

Mr. KESSLER: That's right. Now, the difference, of course, is it's all right for an Israeli prime minister to say that. It's a little different when a U.S. president says it in a way that President Obama said it.

And not to get too much into the diplomatic weeds, there were other things that normally presidents had said at the same time when talking about these boundaries or the code for these boundaries, which President Obama didn't say.

So you have to look at it not just at that one sentence but the total package of what the president was saying. For instance, he made no reference to - or he said he would defer to later on the question of what happens to the rights of Palestinians to settle back in Israel, which is very important for the Palestinians. It's a complete non-starter for the Israelis.

And so when President Obama didn't put that to the side or didn't put it in the same context, it got - that raised hackles in Israel because that was different from what other presidents had said.

CONAN: Well, and again, we're going to bring in another voice in just a moment, but again, the president did not mention that issue of the right of return for Palestinians. And this again from the White House news conference, where Prime Minister Netanyahu seemed to, well, address the point the president had failed to address.

Prime Minister NETANYAHU: And I think it's time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it's not going to happen. The Palestinian refugee problem has to be resolved. It can be resolved, and it will be resolved. If the Palestinians choose to do so in a Palestinian state, that's a real possibility, but it's not going to be resolved within the Jewish state.

CONAN: Well, joining us now from Jerusalem is Ethan Bronner, the Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. ETHAN BRONNER (Jerusalem Bureau Chief, New York Times): Pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: And as you listen to that, that was received with, well, one way in Israel, one way in Jerusalem and another way in Ramallah.

Mr. BRONNER: I think that's fair although to be honest, Jerusalem is such a fractured polity that - I mean, on the issue of refugees, per se, you're right, there's near unanimity among Israelis that there cannot be a right of Palestinian return to what is today Israel.

And you're also right that in Ramallah and in the West Bank, generally among Palestinians, it's considered a central right that mustn't be given up, at least not for nothing.

Okay, I think that the people who have been engaged in negotiating with the Israelis over the years are aware that there will not be an unlimited right of return. But they are also aware that it is one of the most important cards that they hold, and there are millions of people who live abroad who are descendants of Palestinian refugees who feel that these people are representing them and need to stand up for their rights.

CONAN: Let me ask you, Ethan Bronner, as we are talking about this diplomatic language, we are mired in the weeds, as we heard Glenn Kessler describe them, that we have been talking about since 1948, really, in the state of - the creation of the state of Israel, certainly since 1967 and the Six Day War. And it seems like - is there an impression that the rest of the world is changing quickly, and this is just some time-warp bubble that's sitting there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRONNER: Well, to some extent, that's true. I think that the - actually the time warp was pretty strong and wide in this region until only a few months ago. There was a sense that everything was frozen in the Middle East.

And as you said at the top of the show, that is changing very rapidly now, and that's having an effect, as well, on this situation so that there are - the idea that Arabs should stand up to people who have oppressed them and do so en masse is now spreading quite rapidly. And I think that that's an issue that's also hitting this conflict and that is frightening a lot of Israelis about what's coming in the coming months.

CONAN: Well, more on that later, but we want to get some listeners involved in the conversation and to what should we learn from the words of the president and from the words of the prime minister that we've heard over the past week, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Peter(ph). Peter's with us from Berkeley.

PETER (Caller): Hi, Neal, thank you so much for this opportunity. I am just so proud of our president that he is standing up to the conventional creeping of the boundaries here.

And it just seems like flagrant, systematic land grabs based sheerly on power, both economic and military, over the last decades. And I'm just so proud that our American president is coming out and saying the elephant, you know, is in the room and doing something about it.

So having said that, my question is: What international law would, should and normally applies in this kind of situation in terms of land? Can we get some light on that subject? It seems like the responsibility of the international community, not just the parties, to settle this, and it should be under law.

CONAN: Well, the applicable United Nations resolution is still 242, is that not right, Glenn Kessler?

Mr. KESSLER: Yes, that's the resolution that lays open the possibility of exchange of the territories that were taken by Israel in exchange for peace and security.

You know, there are also international laws dealing with the occupation. Interestingly, the State Department in 1978 issued a ruling that said that Israel's continued hold of those territories was not legal under international law.

And the State Department has never rescinded that ruling, though they don't -try not to bring it up very much because it just causes problems. And obviously, Israel objects to that interpretation.

CONAN: Thanks, Peter, very much for the call. We're talking about the Israeli-Palestinian standoff amidst the tides of the Arab spring. More with a moment. And Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post and Ethan Bronner of the New York Times are with us. You stay with us, too. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about the Middle East peace process and the Arab Spring. A week ago, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu traded words over the president's suggestion that negotiations begin with Israel's 1967 borders, with mutually agreed land swaps.

Prime Minister Netanyahu quickly called those borders indefensible. Many have since proclaimed the peace process at a standstill.

Should we - what should we conclude from the words of the president and the prime minister? Phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Glenn Kessler, a veteran diplomatic correspondent who writes the Fact Checker column for the Washington Post; and Ethan Bronner, Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times.

And let me turn back to you, Ethan Bronner, and one thing that is changing in terms of how the Palestinians may be approaching this situation, yes, there's a unity agreement now between Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, an organization regarded by Israel and by the United States as a terrorist organization.

But there was a difference, just a couple of weeks ago, when people on what they call Nakba Day, the calamity day, the day that Israel was created, starting walking to the borders.

Mr. BRONNER: Yes, it was a very dramatic day. I mean, for years people have been urging the Palestinians to do this kind of thing, and this was the first time it actually happened. Now, of course like everything in this region, nothing is uni-causal, and one of the things that happened is that President Assad of Syria was trying to change the subject from his own problems and so allowed several hundred Palestinian refugees to go, and he allowed them to take buses to the Golan Heights and then to challenge Israel's control of the Golan Heights, which of course are a Syrian territory before the '67 war.

So yes, they came and they started to take down the fence, and they were shot at and a few people were killed there, and the same thing happened on the Lebanese side.

It also happened from Jordan and Egypt, but they were stopped. And then it happened from the West Bank in Gaza. So it was a very dramatic day, and there is talk that it'll happen again on June 5. May 15 was the Nakba. June 5 is known as the Naksa. Nakba is catastrophe, Naksa is humiliation, and that is the day that the Six Day War started.

So we may see it again, and generally we may see it as we approach September and beyond.

CONAN: September is when the Palestinians hope that the United Nations General Assembly will recognize a Palestinian state with these 1967 borders.

Mr. BRONNER: That's correct. And so what people are thinking is that if in fact - I mean, I think they're going to start with the Security Council. We can get into that if you want. But they are unlikely to get very far because the Americans are expected to veto it.

But if they go to the General Assembly and get 150 or 175 countries to agree that - that Palestine is - and the '67 lines - well, the next day, when they wake up and they're still occupied, you can imagine that more kinds of civil disobedience and possibly violence would result.

CONAN: And I know that Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to Congress was very well-received there and very well-received by many in Israel. But you wrote in the New York Times that the content was not necessarily universally acceptable.

Mr. BRONNER: Well, I think that in this country, you know, on the street, if you like, Prime Minister Netanyahu was seen as a great champion and wonderful speaker and stood up for what they believed in.

But in the world of policy analysts, diplomats, columnists and people who are worried about policy, they think that, you know, that he missed a great opportunity because by not doing more about negotiations, he's really put behind him the possibility of stopping the move to September and in fact getting the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, which was clearly the goal of the president when he spoke of '67, because the Palestinians have said if we could get negotiations based on the '67 lines and a two to three-month settlement freeze, we would go back to negotiations tomorrow.

Some people believe if they just get the '67 lines, they'll go back to negotiations, but they didn't get it from Prime Minister Netanyahu.

CONAN: Here's an email from David in Americas, Georgia: Did Netanyahu take his position a step further by saying the Israelis would not give any part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians? He said Jerusalem must not be divided. Glenn Kessler, that doesn't seem to be very different from what a lot of Israel prime ministers have said.

Ms. KESSLER: Right. I mean this has certainly been a position of Netanyahu. I think in the - Ethan may remember this better than me because it's been a while since I've looked at the map. I do think in the Olmert negotiations there was some discussion of allowing some East Jerusalem neighborhoods that would belong - part of a Palestinian...

Mr. BRONNER: Actually, Glenn, it went beyond that. I mean, in fact, the Olmert-Abbas negotiations, he gave up all Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to the Palestinian state and in fact gave up what's called the Holy Basin and agreed to a power-sharing with - that would have five countries in charge and rabbis and priests and so on worried about the holy sites.

So he went very far, in fact, so...

Ms. KESSLER: Right, but essentially along the lines of the Clinton parameters.

Mr. BRONNER: That's correct, a little bit beyond.

Ms. KESSLER: A little bit beyond. Well, but you know, Netanyahu, this is part of his political constituency, he says we're never going to divide Jerusalem.

Mr. BRONNER: That's right.

CONAN: Let's go to Charlie(ph), Charlie's on the line with us from Princeton.

CHARLIE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

CHARLIE: Thank you. It's very hard for me to take a - you know, not be one-sided, not be partial in this issue. I'm Jewish, and I have strong feelings towards Israel.

However, I really believe that the core of the problem is that the Palestinians need to make a statement recognizing the right of Israel to exist. None of this, none of this can go forward, it will go nowhere, unless, you know, unless the sides come together on both sides having a right to have a state.

The Israelis have done that. They have done it everywhere and anywhere, even with the president that they have now, who I think most Americans would consider to be pretty much of a hard-liner. And this man has come out on multiple occasions saying that the Palestinians need a state, they need a home.

Why can't the Palestinians do the same? I don't understand it.

CONAN: And let me turn to...

CHARLIE: If they did that, if they did that one thing, a lot of resistance would melt immediately. It wouldn't be difficult - I'm sorry, it would be difficult. There would still be a lot of long, hard negotiating ahead. But it would get done.

CONAN: Ethan Bronner, the organization, the Palestinian Authority, has implicitly accepted the right of the state of Israel to exist. Hamas, however, has not, and calls for the destruction of the state of Israel.

Mr. BRONNER: Right. So I'll just direct - first to try to answer the question -I mean, you're right. But before we get to Hamas, I just want to say that, in fact, in 1993, when the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel exchanged letters and began what was called the Oslo process, the PLO did recognize the existence of the state of Israel as a legitimate state.

What Prime Minister Netanyahu is asking for, and perhaps the listener agrees, is for them to say that it is the Jewish state. And the Palestinian argument has been: It's not up to us to tell you what your state is. You're the state of Israel, and there are - 20 percent of your population is Palestinian, non-Jewish. We don't want to prejudice either their rights or the possibility of a future return of refugees. So we're not going to tell you what it is.

But we certainly acknowledge that you have a state and a right, a legitimate right to a state.

That's not what Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to hear. And you are right, Neal, also, that Hamas, which is an important part of the Palestinian political scene, probably about a third, has never acknowledged Israel's legitimacy or existence.

But you know, to make the argument for the Palestinians for a second again, there are plenty of parties in Israel that do not believe there should ever be a Palestinian state, and some of them are in the governing coalition as well.

CONAN: Charlie, thanks very much for the call.

CHARLIE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And as we go ahead, Ethan Bronner, there are divisions, as you mentioned, within the Palestinians, the big one between Hamas and Fatah, the PLO, who control different entities within the state of - within the Palestinian territories.

But this unity agreement, does that put the kibosh on any hope of negotiation as long as Hamas is part of the Palestinian government?

Mr. BRONNER: Well, it is certainly threatening it, at least as far as the Israelis are concerned. And I think the Americans are quite worried about it too.

What President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority's response is, look, we are in the process of negotiating with them. All of Palestine does have to have one government eventually. This is an important part for us to move forward to statehood. And while we're dealing with it, I'm still the president. It's still the PLO. It's still the Palestinian Authority. We recognize Israel and deal with us and let's go forward.

The American Congress actually structured aid to the P.A., pretty specifically to bar any giving of money to Hamas. So far, the Hamas - Hamas is not in any government with the P.A. So who knows?

But it's definitely a problem, and it is certainly, I think, all of us could agree that it is a problem that Hamas does not recognize legitimacy of the state of Israel.

Mr. KESSLER: Yeah. If I could just jump in here. The flipside of it, of course, is that you'll never get a permanent peace agreement if you don't figure out how to deal with Hamas. I mean, it's a three-legged stool, and Hamas is one of part of that stool. Whether or not people like it, they have to, you know, they control the territory in Gaza.

So one thing the international community has never quite figured out how to do is how to get a peace negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians in a way that would somehow bring in Hamas so that the thing can be actually consummated.

CONAN: And let me ask you, Ethan Bronner, how is Israel responding to the idea that the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza may be open as soon as this weekend?

Mr. BRONNER: I think they're nervous about it, but they're nervous about it more because of the signal that they think it sends from what the Egyptian government - how the Egyptian government is looking ahead, which is to say that this is an act of friendship toward Hamas on some level, which was what President Mubarak had always rejected.

And, of course, there is the concern that if the border is open, guys who they do not want to get into Gaza because they're associated with violence or resistance, as the Hamas calls it, will get in. And, of course, that there generally be less supervision of the border, and that arms and missiles will continue to come in as well.

So the Israelis are upset about it, but I want to tell you that there's also another issue which is that there is a school of thought in Israel which is that let's keep Hamas and - let's keep Gaza focused on Egypt, and let it be the coming and going spot for Gaza. We close off our border. Let them deal with it.

And there's a school of thought here and the foreign minister, Lieberman, is a proponent of this, which is not that upset to see all the trade go that direction.

CONAN: We're talking with Ethan Bronner of The New York Times in Jerusalem. Here with us in Studio 3A, Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Al on the line. Al with us from Eugene, Oregon.

AL (Caller): Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

AL: You know, there are several points that I'd like to make, maybe I just make two. One is that when Netanyahu met with Obama, he basically scolded him, like Sharon did before that when he scolded Bush with his - for - with his roadmap plan. And Barak did the same thing to Clinton. So the Palestinians lost more land under this negotiation.

And second, we don't have somebody in the team that oversee the Middle East, that's a Palestinian-American or an Arab-American. There are a lot of Palestinian-American and Arab-American who are patriots of this country. And we - a lot of times, most of the people who take care of that are either appointed by the Israeli lobby or something.

One thing I could say, though, is that when Netanyahu spoke in front of the Congress, he proved something that there is a king in America and who is the prime minister of Israel. That's a fact.

And I cannot see how the settlement that are illegal, they become eventually facts on the ground. And there is one resolution that your - one of your guest failed to appoint which is 198, which is the Palestinian has the right to return to their home, not those Russians who came from Russia and the Ethiopian.

And the demography now is five and a half million Palestinians in historical Palestine, and there is 5.7 Israelis. So the difference is only 200,000. In the year 2014, there will be more Palestinians (unintelligible) Palestine than all the Jews who they brought from Europe or from Russia and from Ethiopia.

CONAN: Al...

AL: That's a fact.

CONAN: ...thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. And he is discussing something that a lot of people have concerns about, that pretty soon there won't be a two-state solution possible that some Palestinians argue we want a one-state solution where, as Al just pointed out, we will outnumber the Jews in Israel.

Mr. KESSLER: That's right. And that is actually a message that the Obama administration has tried repeatedly to say to the Israeli government. Hillary Clinton said it a year ago when she made a speech to AIPAC, the big pro-Israel group, and the president said it just this past Sunday again to AIPAC.

I gather, you know, and I'm not in Israel, Ethan is, but I - my sense is that that demographic issue was something that really animated Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, who is now the opposition leader, that that does not really concern Netanyahu and his backers as much.

And I don't know how it's going to turn out. But if you look at the statistics, it does suggest that at some point, Palestinians, it would be better for them to say, hey, let's just become citizens of Israel rather than be occupied.

CONAN: Ethan Bronner, is this something that worries Prime Minister Netanyahu?

Mr. BRONNER: I think it does worry him. I mean, I think what Glenn is picking up on is that it seemed to so animate people like Ehud Olmert before and others that suddenly they begin to understand that there was no way that Israel could be Jewish and democratic because of the demographic reality.

But - so I don't think that Prime Minister Netanyahu denies that. I think that he is so animated by other things that it gets sort of pushed out. So in brief, he's animated by the fact that he - when we look at what's going on in the region - and this is a more recent view of his, of course - that many people, including President Obama, would say, oh my God, you must move quickly because of the big changes that are happening. You don't want to get in the way. You don't want to be part of that story. You want to be apart from it. And you want to be able to say we have peace.

And what Prime Minister Netanyahu says is, oh no, we can't possibly make peace with people with all of these of countries where - which are so unstable and where terrible things could happen.

We made peace with Egypt, and look, they're now turning against us. So I think that's a thing that's very important to him.

And another quick thing I want to say is that he truly believes that the West Bank is the Jewish homeland. That's his ideology, and that to - it's giving it up. He - as you heard him say in Washington, Israel is not occupying the West Bank, as far as he's concerned. That is not someone else's land. Now, for peace, we are willing to get out, he says, but it's ours by nature, by - and by history. That's very important to understand, and it's an enormous problem for those who would like to see it divided.

CONAN: Ethan Bronner, thanks very much for your time this evening there in Israel. And our thanks again to Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post who joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks to you both. And we're coming back after this. This is NPR News.

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