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Associated Press/Photo by Charles Dharapak

Drawing lines

Middle East | President Obama's Middle East comments add to the difficulties in bringing Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiating table

Issue: "Tour d'America," June 18, 2011

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has always been an explosive topic. Now President Barack Obama has added more gunpowder to the cannon.

During his Middle East speech on May 19, the president stated that the final borders for a Palestinian state should be "based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn't take the late-hour news lightly: He found out the president's intentions just hours before boarding his plane for a five-day trip to Washington. What followed was a series of rebuttals: an intense meeting between the two leaders, a press conference during which Netanyahu lectured the president on the finer points of Middle East realities, Obama's address to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) where he accused Netanyahu of misrepresenting his words, and the Israeli leader's passionate address to Congress during which he emphatically stated that "peace can only be negotiated with partners committed to peace."

So why all the commotion over boundaries that essentially mirror what is already being proposed for a future Palestinian state? A look at the region's maps, historical conflicts, and what was not included in the president's speech helps explain the firestorm of protest over the president's comment.

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In 1947, the United Nations voted to partition British-occupied Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Jewish leaders accepted the plan even though they would not have a contiguous state, but the Arabs rejected it. Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria launched a full-scale war. Israel fought back and won, gaining some land in the process.

Between 1948 and 1967, Egypt ruled over the Gaza strip and Jordan occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Jews had no access to the West Bank, not even to their holy sites in Jerusalem's Old City.

These boundaries lacked security, as Netanyahu reminded Obama during their meeting on May 20. "Remember that before 1967, Israel was all of nine miles wide, half the width of the Washington beltway," Netanyahu said, referencing the distance at one point from the Mediterranean to the West Bank. "And these were not the boundaries of peace, they were the boundaries of repeated wars because the attack on Israel was so attractive."

Netanyahu's reference to "boundaries" instead of "borders" is likely intentional. The 1949 armistice lines agreed upon by Israel and its neighbors (also called the Green Line because of the green pen used to mark these new boundaries during talks) were intended to be a temporary border. The boundaries changed again during the Six-Day War of 1967 when Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank (including Jerusalem), and the Golan Heights.

United Nations Resolution 242, passed just after that war, attempted to address these territorial gains by calling for a "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." While this resolution is often used to support a complete withdrawal from the territories, history supports a more fluid approach. The Arab nations wanted the resolution to require a withdrawal from "all the territories," but other countries would not go along with that. When asked to explain Britain's intentions, Lord Caradon, the architect of the resolution, said, "It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967 because those positions were undesirable and artificial." Also part of the resolution: a clause requiring a "termination of all claims or states of belligerency" from neighboring states.

Israel completed its withdrawal from Sinai (91 percent of its territorial gain) in 1982. It evacuated the Gaza Strip in 2005. The looming question now is how to create a Palestinian state in the noncontiguous territories of Gaza and the West Bank in such a way that guarantees Israel's security and adequately addresses massive Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza led to a Hamas-ruled enclave a few years later, and Israelis fear the same could happen in the West Bank where Hamas and Fatah recently announced a power-sharing agreement.

This is where Obama appears to have pushed for the wrong course of action from a leader he continues to underestimate. Unlike prior administrations, the president made the 1967 borders a negotiation baseline for the peace process and failed to ask for equivalent concessions from the Palestinians (such as recognizing Israel's right to exist or relinquishing refugee right of return).

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called Obama's speech "a disaster" and said the president was asking Israel "to commit suicide." Netanyahu's charismatic speech to a joint session of Congress earned him more than 20 standing ovations and an increase of 13 percentage points in opinion polls back home.

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