All too many speeches by major political figures are heralded as historic in advance of delivery yet prove to be irrelevant in the grand-strategic scheme of things. Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches” address in the wake of Dunkirk, for example, and his Iron Curtain speech at Fulton six years later were rich in rhetorical flair. They did not go beyond describing an unpleasant reality, however, and urging resolve in dealing with it. They were good for the headlines and popular history books, but irrelevant to the making of history.
For a true paradigm-shifting oration, take Pope Urban II’s speech at the 1095 Council of Clermont. “You have thus far waged unjust wars,” the visionary Frenchman told the Christian world.
You have brandished mad weapons . . . for no other reason than covetousness and pride, as a result of which you have deserved eternal death and sure damnation. We now hold out to you wars which contain the glorious reward of martyrdom, which will retain that title of praise now and forever.
That was world-historic stuff. It ushered in not just the First Crusade but the sustained turning of the tables by an awakened Christendom that went on for eight centuries.
David Lloyd George’s Mansion House Speech on July 21, 1911, was of an almost equal historic import. “If a situation were to be forced upon us in which peace could only be preserved by the surrender of the great and beneficent position Britain has won by centuries of heroism and achievement,” the erstwhile pacifist chancellor of the exchequer (and future prime minister) told an astounded world, “then I say emphatically that peace at that price would be a humiliation intolerable for a great country like ours to endure.” This signaled a change in the security architecture of Europe: The absence of a formal commitment to her Triple Entente partners, France and Russia, was henceforth irrelevant to the choices Britain would be forced to make by Germany’s growing recklessness.
For all the media attention it attracted, President Barack Obama’s 5,400-word speech on U.S. Middle East policy on May 19 was nowhere near this league. Its focus was on the tectonic political shift that has affected much of the Arab world over the past six months and on the need for peace between Israel and the Arabs in order to bring stability and endurance to the process. The speech was less rhetorically adorned than Obama’s embarrassing paean to the Muslim world of two years ago and unremarkable on the specifics of policy. It nevertheless caused a political storm because of one sentence: “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.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who came to Washington the following day, did not hide his ire. “The viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state,” Netanyahu said, alluding to Obama’s call for a “viable Palestine, a secure Israel.” The Israeli leader also demanded a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, when George W. Bush declared it “unrealistic” to expect Israel to return major population centers, in a clear allusion to East Jerusalem and the surrounding suburban settlements. He also argued that “the defense of Israel requires an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River” in the West Bank, contrary to Obama’s call for an eventual Israeli withdrawal. “The only peace that will endure is one based on reality, on unshakable facts,” Netanyahu went on, leaning intently toward a grim Obama in the news conference that followed an unexpectedly long three-hour meeting.
Obama acknowledged the disagreement: “Obviously there are some differences between us in the precise formulation and language, and that’s going to happen between friends.” Those “differences” were remarkable even by the standards of occasionally turbulent links between current U.S. and Israeli leaders, who sat mostly stiff and unsmiling in the subsequent briefing.
Netanyahu’s reaction reflects his unease that Israel’s political position is being eroded by a combination of European hostility and the uncertainties of an “Arab Spring.” Taking a hard line on Jerusalem is supported by a majority of Israelis, including those who favor trading land for peace in the West Bank. It is nothing new for Netanyahu to say that he is not committed to the two-state solution and that the status of Jerusalem is nonnegotiable. And he has never concealed his distaste for what he and others on the Israeli right hyperbolically call “Auschwitz borders,” suggesting the strategic vulnerability of the 1967 line.
But while Netanyahu’s reaction was unsurprising in a politician playing largely to his domestic audience and to the hard-liners in his fragile coalition government, the outcry among the GOP hopefuls was unpleasantly shrill. It went well beyond the normal tactic of scoring points with Jewish voters or attacking the incumbent.
“President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus,” screamed Mitt Romney. “He has disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace.” Another former governor running for the White House, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, called Obama’s reference to borders a “mistaken and very dangerous demand” and “a disaster waiting to happen,” at a time when “it’s never been more important for America to stand strong for Israel and for a united Jerusalem.” Newt Gingrich, whose campaign had tanked even before being properly launched, attacked Obama for offering “concessions to the Palestinians in advance of anything the Israelis do, in a way that could be a significant security threat to the Israelis.” John McCain, the previous Republican presidential candidate, rejected “setting a limitation on the boundaries of the state of Israel.”
In fact there was nothing particularly new in the position stated by Obama. Had he insisted on a return to the 1967 borders, plain and simple, East Jerusalem included, that would have been a major shift in U.S. policy. He did not. The same broad framework he outlined provided the basis for U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967, supported at the time by the Johnson administration. The same framework has been restated in one form or another by most presidents over the past four decades, notably by George H.W. Bush at the time of Madrid and Oslo in the early 1990’s, and by Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000.
The only novelty in Obama’s speech was a slight difference in emphasis from that of a senior member of his team. In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the result of the peace process should be
an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders.
By omitting the notion of the “Palestinian goal,” Obama appears to have given a nod to the Arab side. Outside the obsessive world of Middle Eastern policy analysts, however, the difference went unnoticed. It did not change the substance of the argument or the continuity of the U.S. policy based on it.
The rest of the speech was unremarkable. The President’s reference to “mutually agreed swaps” was an allusion to Israel’s claim to East Jerusalem and some surrounding settlements, which the Israeli government says it intends to keep, come what may. His was a time-tested U.S. formulation to skirt a difficult issue on which the Americans have hoped that Palestinian negotiators may be flexible. The PLO team even hinted at the possibility of concessions back in 2008. With Hamas now on board, a surrender on Al-Quds is unthinkable.
On four important points the President openly supported the Israeli position. He rejected the Palestinian campaign to seek a recognition of sovereign statehood at the U.N. general assembly next September. He did not conceal his displeasure at the reconciliation of Hamas and Fatah, and he called on Hamas to recognize Israel. He said that the status of Jerusalem and the “right of return,” claimed by the Palestinians and their descendants, should be treated as secondary to the key issues of borders and security. Overall, Obama suggested a staggered approach to negotiations, with an “interim solution” being necessary before Jerusalem and refugees are tackled. This approach is known to be unacceptable to the Palestinian side.
The most important part of Obama’s speech was missing: a plan of action. It is now clear that there will be no new initiatives, no new envoys, no Quartet sessions, and no shuttle trips in the months to come. This is just as well, because any new initiative would be doomed to fail for as long as the political future of Egypt, Syria, and several other countries in the region remains uncertain. The Palestinian Authority is in no rush to negotiate. The PLO-Hamas coalition hopes, with good reason, that as several key Arab regimes become more democratic, they will grow more willing to pursue policies supportive of the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority is encouraged that signs of a chill in Egypt’s relations with both Israel and the United States are already evident. That chill may quickly turn into a freeze if the Muslim Brotherhood assumes a role in the decisionmaking process commensurate to its grassroots support. President Obama’s announcement of U.S. sanctions against Bashar al-Assad also excludes Damascus from the potential list of partners for any U.S.-led peace effort. Giving up on Bashar at a time when so many other variables remain unresolved was a mistake.
The “Arab Spring” may yet produce regimes with enhanced domestic legitimacy. This will be reflected in the reduced willingness of the countries thus democratized to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state, let alone to sign peace treaties and establish normal relations with that state. A secondary result will be an enhanced ability of those states to fight wars successfully. Both factors will contribute to the unwillingness of the Israeli government to reconsider its current intransigence. It is hard to imagine that President Obama does not understand this new reality, even if he was loath to talk about it on May 19.