Debate Magazine

A Critical Review of Obama’s 5-19 Speech on Israel

Posted on the 24 May 2011 by Shahalexander
President Barack Obama delivered speech to address fundamental approaches for Middle East reform in view of successful attack to Osama bin Laden. Among a wide range of issues in the speech, the Israeli-Palestine mention has drawn a focal attention by the media. The global community applauded to hear Obama’s message on May 19 that Israel withdraw to the 1967 border for Middle East peace process. Is this really a breakthrough as widely expected? Let me comment briefly.
From Israeli viewpoints, Obama demanded Israel to swap the land without requesting anything to the Palestinian side. David Horovitz of the Jerusalem Post points out that Obama failed to mention historical ties between the Jews and current Israeli territory in the Cairo speech in 2009. Without this history-sovereignty ties are accepted, real compromise between Israel and Palestine cannot be achieved, he says (“Obama’s failure to internalize Palestinian intolerance”; Jerusalem Post; May 20, 2011). Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu interprets that Obama’s speech overturns the 2004 agreement between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, that is, no complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 line and Palestinian refugees’ incorporation into the future Palestinian state. Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post criticizes Obama’s remark from the following three points. First, as Obama said the 1967 borders be the baseline for the peace process, Israel must hand over all the territory acquired in the Six Day War to the Palestinian side. This is to say that Obama defends Palestinian policy goal while demanding a complete compromise for Israel. Second, Obama did not reconfirm the 2004 agreement that Palestinian refugees return to a Palestinian state. This makes the refugee issue vague and provokes concerns on the Israeli side. Third, Obama suggested to engage Hamas without clearly demanding fundamental principles: curbing terrorism, recognizing Israel, and accepting previous agreements (”Analysis: What rankled Netanyahu in the Obama speech”; Jerusalem Post; May 20, 2011).
Let me mention some critical comments to Obama’s proposal on the American side. Though complete withdrawal of Israel is unlikely, American policymakers expect that the national border will be somewhat similar to the 1967 lines. The 2004 agreement is interpreted like this way on both the American and the Israeli side. However, Danielle Pletka, Vice President at the American Enterprise Institute, mentions that the timing and the balance of this speech are inappropriate. Obama decided to insert the 1967 line just before the speech without listening to his senior advisors. There is no wonder Prime Minister Netanyahu was startled to hear this controversial speech as he stood by President Obama at the joint press conference. As to the balance, Obama failed to condemn terrorism by Hamas and poor governance in the Palestine area. She says this imbalance is rooted to Obama’s antipathy to Israel, which is unacceptable to American values and interests (“A Little More on the 1967 Lines, Obama and Israel”; Enterprise Blog; May 20, 2011). In any case, I would argue that Obama has made the same mistake to overturn previous agreements without giving sufficient consideration to the timing and the balance as former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama did on Futemma Air Base.
It is premature to praise Obama’s new proposal for the Israeli-Palestinian peace talk. On the other hand, Barack Obama outlined to reconfirm Bush administration’s policy to promote democracy in the Middle East, and the global community must pay more attention to this primary message in the 5-19 speech. Without airy fairy performance to shock Benyamin Netanyahu, this speech would have been more meaningful, and it is a pity.

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