Obama, Netanyahu, the Middle East speech – & what might have happened there.

President Obama speaks on the Middle East & North Africa at the State Department, White House Photo, Pete Souza, 5/19/11

UPDATE II: Here’s the post-appearance post + the new information that I’m apparently going to be on Russian TV…!

UPDATE: I’ve been contacted by the BBC and will be taking part in their World Have Your Say program today – not once, but twice! Whoot! Here’s the website – the BBC streams all their shows live at this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/worldhaveyoursay/ I’ll be on two programs, during the 12:00-1:00 pm hour and during the 1:00-2:00 pm hour (Chicago time).

I’m not going to try to address all of the many and multitudinous aspects of President Obama’s Middle East speech. As an inveterate MidEast geek, I will say there were parts I really liked (likening Mohammed Bouazizi to Rosa Parks, for one; saying that America “must proceed with a sense of humility,” for two), and parts I liked less (I do so wish we could call the Saudis out for the tyrannical, misogynistic extremists they are… Just once?), but there was so much packed into the speech, that I think it’s best that I really focus on the thing that I know a thing or two about: Israel/Palestine.

I’m going to blockquote that whole section here, and register a few responses, below. Feel free to skip past the source material — it’ll still be there if you want to scroll up and look for something!

Let me conclude by talking about another cornerstone of our approach to the region, and that relates to the pursuit of peace.

For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region. For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could get blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own. Moreover, this conflict has come with a larger cost the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security, prosperity, and empowerment to ordinary people.

My Administration has worked with the parties and the international community for over two years to end this conflict, yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks. The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on for decades, and sees a stalemate. Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward.

I disagree. At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever.

For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.

As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.

The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself. A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people – not just a few leaders – must believe peace is possible. The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.

Ultimately, it is up to Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them, nor can endless delay make the problem go away. But what America and the international community can do is state frankly what everyone knows: a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel. 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. 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 potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. The duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.

These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I know that these steps alone will not resolve this conflict. Two wrenching and emotional issues remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians.

Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table. In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel – how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist. In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.

I recognize how hard this will be. Suspicion and hostility has been passed on for generations, and at times it has hardened. But I’m convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past. We see that spirit in the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas, who helped start an organization that brought together Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones. He said, “I gradually realized that the only hope for progress was to recognize the face of the conflict.” And we see it in the actions of a Palestinian who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza. “I have the right to feel angry,” he said. “So many people were expecting me to hate. My answer to them is I shall not hate…Let us hope,” he said, “for tomorrow.”

That is the choice that must be made – not simply in this conflict, but across the entire region – a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past, and the promise of the future. It’s a choice that must be made by leaders and by people, and it’s a choice that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife.

Ok, a handful of quick points:

  1. The President of the United States has to walk a very fine line no matter what he’s talking about, and even if the above doesn’t represent my hopes and dreams or the hopes and dreams of anyone else deeply invested in Israel/Palestine — that doesn’t make it a bad speech. And in fact — it does not reflect my hopes and dreams. By, let’s call it, a long shot. But given the constraints of international diplomacy and the actual facts as they actually exist in actual-factual reality (as opposed to the fevered imaginings of many), I found this to be a perfectly reasonable, even pretty good speech.
  2. Having said that, I really do wish he had mentioned Palestinian children, too. A lot more of them have died than Israeli kids, and they deserved at least a nod.
  3. When a President references America’s “commitment to Israel’s security” early in a speech — it’s because he’s going to say something Israel doesn’t like later on.
  4. A whole lot of people might not like the fact that this: “Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state” is true — but it’s true. I stand entirely behind the Palestinian decision to take that symbolic action (or, frankly, what is more likely going on here, the decision to threaten to take that action), but if we are wise, we will recognize it for what it is: a symbol. A powerful symbol, no doubt, a potent symbol, but you cannot build a state with a symbol. You might create some momentum toward the establishment of that state, but then again, the whole thing could wind like those other two times Palestinians announced their statehood.
  5. A lot of this echoes or flat-out lifts from the talking points of Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek, and J Street. If the President is getting his talking points on Israel from left-of-center peacenik-y Jews, that’s a good thing. IMHO.
  6. This: “permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine” is a much bigger deal than I think people realize. Israel has managed to evade setting permanent borders since 1967, all the while calling the West Bank a “disputed” territory — in talking about “permanent” borders, for two sovereign states, Obama was sending a message: Time for borders, Israel. Real, non-squishy, defined borders.
  7. Ditto this (nearly ditto, anyway): “The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state. As for security, every state has the right to self-defense…” Every state. I know he then went on to make Israel feel better by saying that Palestine will be “demilitarized,” but that’s still there. Palestinians have a right to a sovereign state, and every state has the right to self-defense.
  8. This: “moving forward now on the basis of territory and security” is precisely what J Street has been calling for. See #5.
  9. Re: The Hamas-Fatah agreement, the language is subtle, and leaves the door open for negotiation and future developments (“Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer… Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse“) — and I don’t know if you remember the last President? But “leaving the door open” has not always been a diplomatic method employed by the President of the United States. Personally, I think we should just sit down with Hamas — but the President of the United States can’t say that. This President has, at the very least, left the door open.
  10. The Israeli and Palestinian parents that he mentioned toward the end are both people I have met and written about: Robi Damelin (actually the mother of the lost Israeli son in question – her name confuses many) and Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. Damelin is one of the founding members of the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families Forum (skip ahead to the 50 second mark to get past the Dutch [I think!] introduction); I reviewed Abuelaish’s book for the Dallas Morning News.

And now that all that’s out of the way, let me get to the single most important thing.


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 potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

is not, by any stretch of the imagination, new. This has been part of every single proposed resolution of the conflict since Oslo. Obama may have sharpened it a little bit — using the still-somewhat-verbotten word “Palestine,” for instance (OMG! Can you imagine!) and saying “sovereign and contiguous,” all bold n’ brassy. But bottom line: There’s not a damn thing there that hasn’t been said and written a million-gajillion times.

And yet.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been doing the “I totes want a two-state peace, golly if only the Palestinians would play nice!” dance for a very long time. He knows exactly and precisely what everyone on earth means when they say “a two-state peace,” and that involves permanent borders along the 1967 lines, with mutually agreeable land swaps. I repeat: This is what the world means when they say “two-state peace,” and Bibi knows it.

So then, in response to Obama’s speech, Bibi calls the 1967 borders “indefensible.”


All the President did was throw down the facts — the facts, not any new plan, not any new demand, just something simple that everyone with two brain cells knows is part and parcel of the thing Bibi says he’s been trying to negotiate for years now — and he got Netanyahu to out himself. Bibi has just said, publicly and one very slim day before he’s to meet with Obama, that he is not, in fact, on board the two-state train, and never has been.

And that, my friends, is huge.

Now, if it will ultimately mean anything? Is anyone’s guess. I have written in the past that this Administration has set an important new tone — and whether or not the tone was new, it wound up being pretty meaningless. So, you know, I am not going to try to foresee what might happen tomorrow, or when Obama speaks to AIPAC, or next week, or next month. It might in fact all wind up dust and fury, all over again.

But after a quarter century of watching the same political theater play out over and over and over, again and again and again — I can tell you: This is new.

And only something genuinely new has any chance of changing the sad, sorry reality that we see today.

I’m on tenterhooks to see what happens at the meeting. Aside from anything else, if we have learned nothing else from the Trump and bin Laden affairs, we have learned this:

Don’t piss POTUS off.

Here’s hoping that Bibi continues to do just that.


  1. I’m so glad you posted this. I’ve been hearing other peoples’ reactions on FB and on twitter, and have been feeling as though perhaps everyone else heard a different speech than I did. But at least now I have confirmation that you heard what I heard, which is reassuring. 🙂

    • Thanks! And: I know, right?

      Mark Lynch at Foreign Policy (aka @abuardvaark) and Andy Carvin (@acarvin) said that they felt most of the commentary read as if it had been written last week, and that’s totally the case. Phyllis Bennis, for instance, was saying something about how Obama’s last sentence supports self-government for everyone but the Palestinians — and I’m like “have you even read the transcript?! The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.!” ARGH!

  2. dmf

     /  May 20, 2011

    because it’s friday and i have nothing to add to this posting but hope against hope:

    Best Society

    When I was a child, I thought,
    Casually, that solitude
    Never needed to be sought.
    Something everybody had,
    Like nakedness, it lay at hand,
    Not specially right or specially wrong,
    A plentiful and obvious thing
    Not at all hard to understand.

    Then, after twenty, it became
    At once more difficult to get
    And more desired – though all the same
    More undesirable; for what
    You are alone has, to achieve
    The rank of fact, to be expressed
    In terms of others, or it’s just
    A compensating make-believe.

    Much better stay in company!
    To love you must have someone else,
    Giving requires a legatee,
    Good neighbours need whole parishfuls
    Of folk to do it on – in short,
    Our virtues are all social; if,
    Deprived of solitude, you chafe,
    It’s clear you’re not the virtuous sort.

    Viciously, then, I lock my door.
    The gas-fire breathes. The wind outside
    Ushers in evening rain. Once more
    Uncontradicting solitude
    Supports me on its giant palm;
    And like a sea-anemone
    Or simple snail, there cautiously
    Unfolds, emerges, what I am.

    Philip Larkin

  3. corkingiron

     /  May 20, 2011

    You’re the first (OK only blog I came to for reaction to the President’s speech – I did check out some of the MSM – but I generally think that “instant” and “analysis” don’t belong on the same page, much less the same sentence. I knew that I would find a considered analysis here; one that doesn’t demonize either side, and would grasp some of the political realities. I wasn’t disappointed.
    I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on Netanyahu’s coalition in the Knesset. How much wiggle room are the far-right religious parties going to give him? And to what extent do you think Obama’s speech will be an issue in the next election? (I haven’t heard the Labor Party’s response yet).
    And – as to # 5 above – you do realize that Drudge et al will be citing you as proof of the President’s Kenya-esque socialism, don’t you? 🙂

  4. Thanks very much for writing this sharp analysis. I too am a Middle East geek, and here via my good friend Rachel Barenblat. I was srprised and happy with the speech, and thought it significant that Obama delivered it at the State Dept. alone on the podium, with all the top brass arranged as listeners. This says to me that it was his speech, his content. I am quite sure he went against Hillary to give it, as well as a number of other voices at State. Obviously you could only talk about one subject here – Israel/Palestine – but I feel that Obama (with whom I’ve been disappointed in some major ways) is a very good man who can’t abide American hypocrisy, and on this occasion, in the wake of the “Arab Spring,” realized that giving out the same old lines simply wasn’t going to work anymore. The reiteration about the 1967 borders is not new, as you clearly point out (and thanks for that.) But it is new for an American president to say, and mean it, “we can’t espouse these ideas of democracy and not support, in tangible ways, people who are reaching for freedom.” The prior intifadas aside, this wave has now come to Israel, and I am quite sure they are afraid, as they should be. The U.S. has to have a consistent foreign policy across the entire region in order to have any credibility at all, and to begin to take steps to redress the huge damage of the last decades. Yes, that means Saudi Arabia, it means Bahrain, it means the whole deal. Obama knows this. I applaud his courage, even though these are still small steps, and I’m very curious to see what comes out of the meetings with Netanyahu – who, I’m quite sure, is absolutely furious. It’s hard to be hopeful, but this is the first hopeful move in a long while.

  5. Lola Raincoat

     /  May 20, 2011

    I really appreciate this. Thanks for supporting my very tentative optimism. And yes, as a previous commenter put it, it’s a big relief to know that we heard the same speech.

  6. Redshift42

     /  May 20, 2011

    Hi, Emily! I heard you on BBC, and you were great! In particular, I have to say that you have waaay more self-control than I do — I was yelling at the radio nearly every time that pinhead on the panel opened his mouth.

  7. nm

     /  May 20, 2011

    It always puzzles me when people go all “oh, poor dangerous indefensible pre-1967 borders.” They do get it that those are the borders from which Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza, and the Sinai, right? And that the current borders plus the Sinai weren’t especially helpful in 1973?

  8. RosiesDad

     /  May 20, 2011


    I’m glad that you heard what I heard–a reaffirmation of the basis for every proposal for a two state peace settlement. Start with the Green Line and then exchange land so that Israel can keep some of the settlements that it will not give up once the final borders are agreed to.

    Certainly not grounds for anyone’s hair being on fire but maybe the larger issue is that Netanyahu doesn’t want to be forced to make a concrete peace proposal. This puzzles me; it always seemed to me that it would be to Israel’s advantage to appear to be the reasonable partner and put the ball in the Palestinians’ court, so to speak. Ehud Barak did this with Arafat and Arafat blinked. And then shouldered (for a time) the blame for the failure to achieve peace. But maybe Abbas and Erekat will stand taller than Arafat and get it done. In the end, it is necessary for Israel’s survival.

  9. Love your writing!

  10. There is major correlation between the principal objectives of Israel and the United States reaching real peace between Israel and the Arab world stabilizing the Middle East and restraining the extreme forces that thrive on violence subversion and terrorism. . How do you asses the Israeli and Palestinian publics willingness to support movement forward on the peace process?.The Israeli public has already proved that it is willing to pay a painful price for peace when it is convinced that true peace is at stake and that Israeli security would not be harmed. I believe that this will be the state of things when we reach decision time regarding a peace agreement with the Palestinians.