Israel Is Right to Refuse Obama's Plan

By Shlomo Slonim

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is reported to have charged Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with being an ingrate for failing to accept President Barack Obama's terms for a settlement with the Palestinians. In this, Gates is echoing earlier presidential "spokesmen" such as former ambassador Martin Indyk and New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman.

Apparently, it is expected that a country benefiting from American largesse will agree to surrender territory, rights and history in return.

In order to understand what the president was asking of Israel, and therefore why Netanyahu had to refuse, it is necessary to analyze just what his pronouncement calling for talks to start on the basis of the June 1967 lines entails.

For one thing, no previous American president had premised the Israeli-Palestinian talks on such a basis. American pronouncements repeatedly emphasized that the negotiations, and indeed any forthcoming agreement, was a matter for the parties to agree upon. No outside party was entitled to intervene and dictate the terms of the discussions.

The closest that any administration came to making such suggestions was the ill-fated Rogers Plan of 1969 which, while calling for Jerusalem to remain united, also endorsed a settlement with only minor territorial changes. Israel vigorously rejected the Rogers Plan, with prime minister Golda Meir declaring that a government accepting that plan as a starting point would be guilty of undermining Israeli security. The Nixon administration beat a hasty retreat, and with the substitution of Henry Kissinger as secretary of state in place of William P. Rogers, nothing more was heard of the plan.

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That episode also highlights another unusual feature of the Obama pronouncements.

Presidents generally float new ideas by means of a subordinate, a state department official or even a secretary of state. Such a procedure ensures that the president's prestige is not directly involved. It allows the president to backtrack, if need be, or qualify the subordinate's statement without loss of face and without the embarrassment of a major confrontation and crisis with an injured party. In relation to the Middle East, however, Obama is acting very much as his own secretary of state, issuing orders or statements directly from the White House. This leaves very little room for revision of policy. It becomes this or nothing.

On the subject of Jerusalem, such an approach is fraught with danger.

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The writer is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of Jerusalem in America's Foreign Policy.

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