President Obama’s Middle East Address: From Arab Spring to Israeli Winter

By Aaron Marcus l May 25, 2011

Obama speaks at the State Department on May 19, 2011   Netanyahu at the White House on May 20, 2011


In a speech originally intended to advance his administration’s policy of Muslim outreach, President Barack Obama injected controversy into otherwise already strained U.S.-Israeli relations, while appeasing the Arab street. Almost as an afterthought, and placed near the end of his State Department Middle East address, Obama became the first U.S. president to publically call for Israel to negotiate a peace agreement with a sworn enemy based on indefensible borders.

“The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine,” Obama declared on May 19th. “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”

The President called it a “new chapter in American diplomacy,” one that would entail World Bank-IMF economic development assistance, universal rights and democracy-based self-determination throughout the region backed by U.S. foreign aid, including debt relief, OPIC guaranteed investment along with a “comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa,” a veritable litany of new spending amounting to billions of dollars in American foreign aid.

Going far beyond President George W. Bush’s Muslim outreach program of public diplomacy, President Obama has spoken before the Turkish Parliament (April 6, 2009), to students at Cairo University (June 4, 2009), appointed both a Special Representative to Muslim Communities (June 2009) and a Special Envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) (February 2010). The State Department’s Muslim outreach program includes numerous other remarks, speeches and interviews by both the president and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

President Obama’s references to colonialism and the Cold War could not have displayed his personal bias and conviction more succinctly than when he spoke in Cairo saying:

“I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United Sates and Muslims around the world…part of this conviction is rooted in my own experience. I’m a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk. As a young man I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.”

With regard to the intractable Palestinian question, the President of the United States tilts firmly against Israel, as was made clear during his Cairo speech:

“On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”

Meeting President Obama at the White House on May 20th, the day after his State Department speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu candidly responded to the Palestinian refugee problem that the president has asserted Israel is responsible for and that America will correct.

“the Palestinian refugee problem will have to be resolved in the context of a Palestinian state but certainly not in the borders of Israel. The Arab attack in 1948 on Israel resulted in two refugee problems, Palestinian refugee problem and Jewish refugees, roughly the same number, who were expelled from Arab lands,” Netanyahu stated. Now tiny Israel absorbed the Jewish refugees, but the vast Arab world refused to absorb the Palestinian refugees. Now, 63 years later, the Palestinians come to us and they say to Israel: accept the grandchildren, really, and the great-grandchildren of these refugees, thereby wiping out Israel’s future as a Jewish state. So that’s not going to happen. Everybody knows it’s not going to happen. 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.”

Alluding to the beginning of the Arab Spring, President Obama said, “That story of self-determination began six months ago in Tunisia.” Outlining what would translate into a U.S. sponsored campaign to bring peace, democracy and prosperity to the troubled region, Obama it seems continues to pursue the Bush administration’s effort of democratizing the Middle East, while supporting the overthrow of evil, tyrannical oppressors. So why did he call his speech a turning point in American diplomacy? There are two main shifts evident in U.S. Middle East policy resulting from this speech. The first is that contrary to Bush’s policywhich supported only democracy in the Middle East, Obama supports the misguided and failed Wilsonian concept of democratic national self-determination that encourages Arab factions, disputes and violence.

In Egypt polls have shown that a majority of people support the Muslim Brotherhood. Since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarek more than 20,000 Egyptian civilians have faced military tribunals, which according to the Christian Science Monitor have almost exclusively replaced the civil justice system. President Obama’s failure to signal that only democracies will receive the support of the U.S. government is a new direction for American diplomacy. He emphasized that democracies would have support and welcomed individual self-determination, claiming that “it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions.” However, the failure to condemn the potential rise of Islamist leaders leaves a major void in U.S. commitment to the Middle East.

The second major shift in U.S. Diplomacy coming from President Obama’s speech is his call to base “the borders of Israel and Palestine…on the 1967 lines.” Shortly after his speech, the President declared that this wasn’t a new initiative at all and had been the policy of the United States for over a decade. This of course, is simply not true. As a ‘new chapter in American diplomacy’ the President understood that the framework he was laying down would alter foreign policy and his call for peace between Israel and the Palestinians was no different. The rhetoric in which he called for this peace indicated a significant shift in America’s stance on the region. By declaring a border based on the 1967 lines, President Obama is in effect dividing Israel into two regions. With these borders, Israel would be cut to a width of 9 miles at its smallest point. In a peaceful region, these borders wouldn’t make a significant difference. However Arab nations have consistently called for the destruction of the tiny Jewish state and would be able to enter and exit Israeli airspace in less than a minute if Israel returned to the ‘67 lines. This by and large would allow for enemy warplanes to bomb Israel’s major cities, airports and military bases with little or no time to defend itself.

Netanyahu responded to the president’s call to base Palestinian negotiations on pre-war 1967 lines by calling those borders “indefensible.”

“I think for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities. The first is that while Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines, because these lines are indefensible…..Remember that before 1967, Israel was all of 9 miles wide – half the width of the Washington Beltway. And these were not the boundaries of peace; they were the boundaries of repeated wars, because attack on Israel was so attractive from them. So we can’t go back to those indefensible lines, and we’re going to have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan.”

Aside from the serious security concern this causes for the people of Israel, any borders based on 1967 lines would also force out the Jewish people from the Old City of Jerusalem. In accordance with Jewish law, the Temple Mount is the holiest site in the world for Jews and the Western Wall its remaining remnants are located within the Old City.

Access to Jewish holy sites is essential to a permanent Israeli-Palestinian solution. While Israel protects and grants access to holy sites of all religions, the Palestinians haven’t been as gracious. Joseph’s Tomb was handed over to the Palestinian Authority in 2000 under the agreement that the site would be protected, has since been perpetually vandalized. Most recently Palestinians desecrated it in late April 2011 in celebration after the murder of an Israeli worshiper by a Palestinian police officer. However, in addition to vulnerable Jewish holy sites, Christian places of worship would also be susceptible to Palestinian Rule. This would include the Church of Holy Sepulcher, the location where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. To believe Palestinians would maintain this holy site to the highest level of respect, brings to mind the manner in which they protected the Church of Nativity. In 2002, after a shootout with Israeli Defense Forces, 250 Islamic Terrorists took hostage the Church of Nativity, leaving it vandalized and in disarray.

The religious implications for a pre-1967 Israeli border only raise the potential for catastrophe that could result from such a boundary. Mind you a border that has no historical significance whatsoever. As a self-described student of history, it’s bewildering why President Obama has blatantly disregarded historical facts. First and foremost, he continues to call Judea, Samaria, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights occupied territory. A stretch at best considering Arab Nations in 1947 declined the United Nation’s Partition of Palestine. While Israel accepted the borders, the Arabs sought to deny the establishment of the state of Israel and decided to attack the newly formed Jewish nation instead. After Israel survived this war of aggression, the Arabs still refused to recognize Israel and the Partition Plan. This resulted in the armistice plan of 1949, which placed the West Bank (area west of the Jordan River) into the hands of Jordan and Gaza into the hands of Egypt.

In 1967 Israelin a pre-emptive strike won another war of self-defense, the Six Day War, against Arab nations that had cut off Israel’s access to the Gulf of Aqaba and entry to the Red Sea while amassing militarily on Israel’s borders poised for attack. As a result, Israel seized unclaimed territory in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Sinai and the Golan Heights. Since the Arabs failed to accept any agreement from the United Nations in 1947, the land that Israel took possession of is disputed territory and not occupied land. If anything, the land would belong to Jordan and Egypt, but most definitely not to a Palestinian people.

Israel took control of these disputed areas with the strategic view of hopefully being able to repel future Arab attacks. Since their 1967 victory, Israel has complied with UN Security Council Resolution 242 that made inadmissible any Israeli land taken in an offensive war and also called for Israeli withdrawal from territories acquired during the conflict. The resolution at no point calls for a withdrawal from all territory and does so deliberately in order to allow Israel room to protect itself from future invasions. By holding onto disputed territories in the West Bank and Golan Heights, Israel can defend itself from rockets and missiles directed at civilian and military outposts in Israel proper. These strategic settlements are essential to Israeli long-term security.

In fact, Israeli withdrawal from land in the past is evidence enough that the Palestinian leadership and terrorist organizations in the region will not accept peace until Israel is driven into the sea. After withdrawing more than 10,000 Israelis from Gaza in 2005, Israel in return received more than 10,000 rockets fired from Gaza into Israeli towns between 2005 and 2008, rocket attacks that continue to this day. When Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah engulfed the region in terror. They created arsenals of Keytusha rockets that were shot into Northern Israel in 2006 after the kidnapping and murder of two Israeli soldiers.

Following their White House meeting Netanyahu explained the security issue to the press saying:

“I discussed this with the president. I think that we understand that Israel has certain security requirements that will have to come into place in any deal that we make….and that is that Israel cannot negotiate with a Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas. Hamas, as the president said, is a terrorist organization, committed to Israel’s destruction. It’s fired thousands of rockets on our cities, on our children. It’s recently fired an anti-tank rocket at a yellow school bus, killing a 16-year-old boy.”

Now imagine if terrorist groups or hostile nations like Syria or Iran were able to corner Israel into a nine-mile stretch? In 1938 France and Britain decided to concede the Sudetenland territory to an irredentist Germany with the hope that no further territorial concessions would be needed. Obviously, the agreement didn’t work and after claiming other Czechoslovakian territory the Nazis invaded Poland, starting the Second World War.

Territory concessions have not worked in the past and only drive the land recipient to seek more territorial gains. Israel has withdrawn from Sinai, Gaza and Southern Lebanon only to be relentlessly attacked by Keytusha and Qassam rockets from each territory. The borders proposed by President Obama are not only unrealistic but also historically and legally erroneous. As Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons and fund terror groups in Gaza and Southern Lebanon, Israel would become extremely vulnerable to cataclysmic attacks.

Three days before President Obama’s speech, Netanyahu in an address before the Israeli Knesset pointed out that the root of the conflict was not over the 1967 border lines but over 1948 and the formation of Israel, the reality of which becomes quite clear. Netanyahu painted a grim picture saying, “At the procession in Bil’in, a young girl was walking along holding a large symbolic key. Every Palestinian knows what that key symbolizes. This is not a key to their homes in Bil’in, Ramallah or Nablus. It is the key to our homes in Jaffa, Acre, Haifa and Ramle,” explained the Israeli Prime Minister. “My friends, the root of this conflict never was a Palestinian state, or lack thereof. The root of the conflict is, and always has been, their refusal to recognize the Jewish state. It is not a conflict over 1967, but over 1948, over the very existence of the State of Israel. You must have noticed that yesterday’s events did not occur on June 5, the anniversary of the Six Day War. They occurred on May 15, the day the State of Israel was established. The Palestinians regard this day, the foundation of the State of Israel, their nakba, their catastrophe. But their catastrophe was that they did not have a leadership that was willing to reach a true historic compromise between the Palestinian people and the Jewish people.”

A recent Rasmussen survey shows that “71% of likely voters believe that Palestinian leaders should be required to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”

When Obama took the stage at the State Department to discuss the Middle East he should have laid out a plan that not only included both Israeli and Palestinian concessions but a vision for a region free of Islamic radicalism and anti-Western attitudes. This would entail three key measures: the first, supporting regime change that enhances American security interests without blind support for rebels; Second, the call for an immediate halt to Iranian nuclear ambitions; and, three a contingency plan for American support to the Palestinian Authority based on the premise that they do not accept funding or supplies from radical regimes like Hamas, Iran or Hezbollah.

The current proposal by the Obama administration lays the burden entirely upon Israel and subtly hints that Israel is the sole reason there is no peace in the region. Without adequate demands from the Palestinian side, Obama’s bias and seeming ignorance about the long history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unrealistic about it ending. This new American stance toward Israel and the Middle East is cause for concern. As it stands, Israel is the United States’ greatest ally in a region filled with hostility toward American ideals and liberty. By demanding unreasonable concessions from the lone Jewish state the Obama administration has disregarded the bond formed between the two nations over the past 63 years and replaced it with an idea fueled by an International Community hostile toward Israel.

This is no time for the United States to be loosening its ties with Israel. As the Arab Spring turns into the Arab Summer and significant change comes to the region, the United States should not be ushering in an Israeli winter filled with high risk, danger and uncertainty. Instead, it should be letting the world know that it stands with Israel. Unfortunately, the President has done quite the opposite. He publically supported the removal of Mubarak from office in Egypt, while backing unknown guerrilla warriors in Libya and has failed to crackdown on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s assault against his own people. Along with a strong chastisement of Israeli policy, it has become evident where Obama stands on Israel, her defenders and the enemies sworn to her destruction.

Aaron Marcus is a graduate of the National Journalism Center having served his internship as an editorial assistant at The Washington Times. He is currently a columnist for The Daily Targum at Rutgers University where he is an undergraduate student. Mr. Marcus is a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.