Roger Cohen
The New York Times (Opinion)
May 20, 2011 - 12:00am

On the eve of an election year, with Jewish donors and fund-raisers already restive over his approach to Israel, President Obama made a brave speech telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “the dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation” and urging him to accept Israeli borders at or close to the 1967 lines.

The president got 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. Perhaps those words will cost him some of those votes — although sentiment toward Israel among American Jews is slowly shifting. But true friends are critical friends. And the American and Israeli national interest do not lie in the poisonous Israeli-Palestinian status quo.

Netanyahu, who will address the U.S. Congress next week, will certainly attempt in response to go over the president’s head to those restive donors and fund-raisers. He’s Israel’s leader, but knows that a core constituency lies in the United States. He will try to outlast Obama, noting that Republican hopefuls like Mitt Romney are already talking of the president throwing “Israel under the bus.” He will try to kick the can down the road. Process without end favors Israel.

Therein lurks the political fight of the next several months. The best Obama and Netanyahu will ever be able to do is position a fig-leaf of decorum over their differences. The worst poison is distrust. These two men have it aplenty for each other.

Obama, in a first for an American president, has now said the border between Israel and Palestine should be “based on the 1967 lines.” Yes, it should. Netanyahu still talks of “Judea and Samaria,” a lexicon that, true to his Likud party’s platform, does not acknowledge those lines but sees one land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Each leader believes Israel’s long-term security depends on his view prevailing.

A Republican-dominated Congress awaits Netanyahu with open arms. So does the powerful pro-Israel lobby, Aipac. Netanyahu is no less susceptible to adulation than the average man. These are not backdrops that encourage tough choices. But he must make them or watch Israel’s isolation and instability grow.

Does Netanyahu, with democratic change and movement coursing through the region, have it in him to move beyond short-term tactics to a strategy for his nation that ushers it from its siege mentality? I doubt it. I do know he will be judged a failure if he refuses, now, to make a good-faith effort to see if Israel’s security can be squared with Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. That involves revealing Israel’s hand on borders with the same frankness the president has just shown.

As Obama noted, occupation is “humiliation.” It was humiliation as experienced by a young Tunisian fruit vendor that sparked the unfurling of the Arab Spring. There is no reason to believe this quest for dignity and self-governance will stop at Palestine’s door or that Israel’s quest for security can be sustained by walls alone.

Arabs by the tens of millions have been overcoming the paralysis of fear. It is past time for Israel to do the same. A specter — Iran, Hamas, delegitimization campaigns — can always be summoned to dismiss peace. These threats exist. But I believe the most corrosive is Israeli dominion over another people. That’s the low road.

Obama got it right. The essential trade-off is Israeli security for Palestinian sovereignty. Each side must convince the other that peace will provide it.

Israeli security begins with a reconciled Fatah and Hamas committing irrevocably to nonviolence, with Palestinian acquiescence to a nonmilitarized state, and with Palestinian acceptance that a two-state peace ends all territorial claims. Palestinian sovereignty begins with what Obama called “the full and phased withdrawal of Israeli security forces” — including from the Jordan River border area — and with the removal of all settlements not on land covered by “mutually agreed swaps.”

This is difficult but doable. The 1967 lines are not “indefensible,” as Netanyahu declared in his immediate response to Obama’s speech. What is “indefensible” over time for Israel is colonizing another people. That process has continued with settlements expanding in defiance of Obama’s urging. The president was therefore right to pull back from President George W. Bush’s acceptance of “already existing major Israeli population centers” beyond the 1967 lines.

Palestinians have been making ominous wrong moves. The unilateralist temptation embodied in the quest for recognition of statehood at the United Nations in September must be resisted: It represents a return to useless symbolism and the narrative of victimhood. Such recognition — and of course the United States would not give it — would not change a single fact on the ground or improve the lot of Palestinians.

What has improved their lot is the patient institution-building of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on the West Bank, his embrace of nonviolence, and his refusal to allow the grievances of the past to halt the building of a future. To all of this Netanyahu has offered only the old refrain: Israel has no partner with which to build peace.

It does — if it would only see and reinforce that partner. Beyond siege lies someone.


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