The Duck of Minerva

Obama’s “1967” Play

20 May 2011

What to make of it? Was it significant, or just more of the same?

Of course it was significant — it is the first time a U.S. president has publicly claimed the “1967 lines” as the basis for negotiations and it came after an apparent “angry” phone call from Netanyahu to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanding that the language be removed from the speech. It was clearly meant to send a signal.

For the past five months, the Obama administration’s reaction to the Arab spring has been a blend of soft rhetorical support with a wait-and-see approach. (This, by the way, was exactly the approach George H.W. Bush’s team took during the East European revolutions in 1989.)

But, we now have a better picture of where things are likely headed. And, while the Israeli-Palestinian issue was a non-factor in the Arab revolutions thus far, that’s about to change.

Liberal democratic neighbors might ultimately be good for Israel. But, we’re not likely to see any in the region any time soon — democratic transitions are long and difficult — and inherently unstable. New elites will emerge and exploit populist appeals and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is low-hanging fruit. The type of violence against the Palestinians that erupted last weekend, coupled with continued settlements are ready made for demagoguery and exploitation by new (and old) Arab politicians seeking to carve out political space and support. Given popular (median voter) opposition to Israel, any elections are likely to produce governments that are more skeptical and confrontational toward the Israelis.

At the Herzliya Conference in early February, Alex Mintz of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya warned that the strategic time-frame that used to be in Israel’s favor is now against it. With unstable revolutionary transitions, a weaker U.S. position in the region, and greater regional diplomatic energy coming from Ankara and Tehran, coupled with dysfunctional Israeli domestic institutions, significant gaps in Israeli society, and with problematic demographic trends, Israel is now, in many ways, in a more vulnerable position than at anytime since 1967.

Netanyahu and the American right have been banking on the status quo to create new realities on the ground — more settlements = new and better lines to negotiate from. That approach is now not only unsustainable, but will become increasingly more dangerous for the Israelis in the wake of the Arab revolutions. The strategic time-frame has shifted and it clearly is not on the Israeli side — that seems to be the gist of Obama’s “1967” play.