The Bush-Obama line on Palestine: forget ’67

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The election of President Barack Obama brought great hope that his administration could be the one to bring about a settlement to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. But Obama has largely followed the Bush administration’s pro-Israel slant. New documents released by WikiLeaks and Al Jazeera shed further light on the continuation of the Bush administration’s disastrous policy on Israel/Palestine.

As part of its ongoing release of secret State Department cables, WikiLeaks yesterday released documents concerning Brazil. One 2005 document, written from the U.S. embassy in Brazil, centers on a first-time gathering in Brazil between Arab and South American leaders. The U.S. was worried about language concerning Israel/Palestine in the final document that came out of the summit:

Despite repeated Brazilian promises over many months that the Summit Declaration would not contain language inimical to Middle East peace efforts, the final text contains problematic paragraphs that existed in earlier declaration drafts. In addition to the demand that Israel withdraw to its June 4, 1967 frontiers, the declaration also calls on Israel to comply with the International Court of Justice July 2004 decision on dismantling the security wall.

The reference to the 1967 borders and the International Court of Justice decision as “problematic” is unsurprising, given that the Bush administration showed the utmost contempt for international law. This cable further confirms the Bush administration’s double-dealings when it came to the borders of a future Palestinian state: while the Bush administration backed the 2003 Road Map that called for a halt to Israeli settlement building, a secret letter to the Israeli government contradicts that plan:

In a key sentence in Bush’s 2004 letter, the president stated, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

Contempt for international law, and support for Israel’s insistence that negotiations not be based on the 1967 borders, has continued into the Obama administration. Despite President Obama’s pledge in 2009 to push for a “viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967,” documents published by Al Jazeera as part of the “Palestine Papers” tell a different story. Ali Abunimah, writing in Al Jazeera, analyzes:

The next day [after Obama’s 2009 UN speech] during a meeting at the US Mission to the United Nations in New York, Erekat refused an American request to adopt Obama’s speech as the terms of reference for negotiations. Erekat asked Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Hale why the Obama administration would not explicitly state that the intended outcome of negotiations would be a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with a third party security role and a staged Israeli withdrawal. Hale responded, “You ask why? How would it help you if we state something so specific and then not be able to deliver?” according to Palestinian minutes of the meeting.

At the same meeting, which Mitchell himself later joined, Erekat challenged the US envoy on how Obama could publicly endorse Israel as a “Jewish state” but not commit to the 1967 borders. Mitchell, according to the minutes, told Erekat “You can’t negotiate detailed ToRs [terms of reference for the negotiations]” so the Palestinians might as well be “positive” and proceed directly to negotiations. Erekat viewed Mitchell’s position as a US abandonment of the Road Map.

On 2 October 2009 Mitchell met with Erekat at the State Department and again attempted to persuade the Palestinian team to return to negotiations. Despite Erekat’s entreaties that the US should stand by its earlier positions, Mitchell responded, “If you think Obama will force the option you’ve described, you are seriously misreading him. I am begging you to take this opportunity.”

Erekat replied, according to the minutes, “All I ask is to say two states on 67 border with agreed modifications. This protects me against Israeli greed and land grab – it allows Israel to keep some realities on the ground” (a reference to Palestinian willingness to allow Israel to annex some West Bank settlements as part of minor land swaps). Erekat argued that this position had been explicitly endorsed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice under the Bush administration.

“Again I tell you that President Obama does not accept prior decisions by Bush. Don’t use this because it can hurt you. Countries are bound by agreements – not discussions or statements,” Mitchell reportedly said.

The US envoy was firm that if the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not agree to language in the terms of reference the US would not try to force it. Yet Mitchell continued to pressure the Palestinian side to adopt formulas the Palestinians feared would give Israel leeway to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank without providing any compensation.

At a critical 21 October 2009 meeting, Mitchell read out proposed language for terms of reference:

“The US believes that through good faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome that achieves both the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state encompassing all the territory occupied in 1967 or its equivalent in value, and the Israeli goal of secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meets Israeli security requirements.”

Erekat’s response was blunt: “So no Road Map?” The implication of the words “or equivalent in value” is that the US would only commit to Palestinians receiving a specific amount of territory — 6258 square kilometers, or the equivalent area of the West Bank and Gaza Strip — but not to any specific borders.

Alex Kane blogs on Israel/Palestine at, where this post originally appeared.  Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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