President Obama's Speech and the Peace Process: Nothing Will Change

05/20/2011 08:52 pm ET | Updated Jul 20, 2011

More than any other portion of President Obama's May 19th speech, the segment devoted to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has attracted great attention, generating heated rhetoric from both sides. Yet, in truth, there was nothing in the speech that should have surprised anyone following the process and nothing that will change the fact that as the president said, the conflict "has grinded on and on" with "nothing but stalemate" and it will continue to founder.

In the run-up to the speech, there was a struggle between those who were pressing the president to put a specific plan, even including a map, before the parties to the conflict and those like State Department Advisor Dennis Ross who advocated a less specific approach. The President seems to have cut the baby in half, with what appear at first blush to be very specific approaches but which in the end are only general principles that the parties can continue to negotiate about endlessly, as they have done until now.

Let's start with the statement that has received the most attention: "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. We believe 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." While Prime Minster Netanyahu has decried this formulation, joined by his right wing coalition partners and various Republican politicians, this principle has been the basis for negotiations ever since UN Resolution 242 unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council on November 22, 1967, which called for "Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict" and affirmed the right of "every state in the area... to live in peace within secure and recognized borders free from threats or acts of force." Resolution 242 was formally accepted by the Israeli Government through its Ambassador to the UN in May, 1968. Moreover, the PLO acceptance of the Resolution, after previously rejecting it, was the basis for negotiations with Israel in the Declaration of Principles that was the Oslo Accords.

While the president suggested that the basis of negotiations should be the 1967 borders, he left open to the parties to negotiate "mutually agreed" swaps of land that would allow Israel to annex the large settlements as part of Israel proper by trading other land to the Palestinians. This concept, too, is not new, having been part of previous negotiations between Israeli prime ministers and Palestinian leaders. Of course, requiring mutual agreement leaves the parties in position to drag out negotiating the swaps, continuing the endless delays that the President explicitly seeks to avoid.

Another statement in the speech that is contrary to the Netanyahu position is the concept that the Palestinian state should border on Jordan, while Netanyahu has said that Israel needs to retain control of the Jordan Valley to protect its security. But the president was careful to add that "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 forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated." While this language provides Israel with a way to assure its security in the Jordan Valley, through long term positioning of Israeli forces in the Jordan Valley, it also opens the door to endless negotiations about security issues.

The Obama speech is also challenged by the Netanyahu government because it suggests that the parties should start by negotiating the two issues of territory and security apart from the "wrenching and emotional issues" of "the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees:" The president stated that"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 aspiration of both Israelis and Palestinians." Netanyahu has always insisted that all these issues must be resolved together. But here, again, the president left an opening, noting that "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." Moreover, by referring to "Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people," the speech appears to close the door to a right of return of Palestinians to Israel. And then the president raised a key point, echoing an argument by Netanyahu, that in the end, can leave any negotiations totally bogged down.

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? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.

This is the "cross road" I wrote about on May 5th, suggesting that continuation of Hamas' position would frustrate the efforts to a successful peace process. So far, the Palestinian reaction has been to reject this point. In my response to a comment to that blog, I also stated that the Palestinian approach to the UN to recognize a Palestinian state, given the Palestinian's need for power, water and other services controlled by Israel, can only result in a state that will have difficulty attaining viability in the face of Israeli antagonism. The president made the American position clear: "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."

The fact is, as the president acknowledged: "Now, ultimately, it is up to the Israelis and the Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them -- not by the United States, not by anybody else." The very strong adverse reactions to elements of the president's speech -- some of which one might think were quite evident -- by the leaders of both sides and their supporters, after all the years of negotiations and discussions among them, more clearly shows how far apart the parties really are in reaching an accord. Unhappily, despite the president's hopes, it looks like the stalemate will continue for a long time to come.

Mr. Lifton, a businessman and political activist is writing a book titled Life's Lessons and Stories from a Member of the 'Greatest Generation.'