How Obama pissed off Israel – the 1967 “borders”

By , May 23, 2011 1:53 pm
For all its faults, Israel is pretty badass

Picking on Israel went really well for the aggressors...

Following my last post, I’ve been trying to do some research to figure out why Obama’s urging to use the 1967 Israel borders as a starting point was a bad thing, and why it pissed off Israel (and a bunch of other folks). Here’s what I’ve been able to figure out.


In 1967, Israel was attacked (again…) by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six Day War, so called because that’s how long it took for Israel to kick everyone else’s ass and over double its territory. That’s right: Israel was invaded and ended up with more land than it started with. Specifically, Israel ended up with the Sinai Peninsula (since returned to Egypt), the Gaza Strip (which Israel has already pretty much withdrawn from), the West Bank (which Israel has also basically said they’re wiling to part with, even though Jewish settlers keep making new settlements), East Jerusalem (which Israel is most emphatically not willing to part with and no one seriously expects them to), and the Golan Heights (which is, as far as I can tell, the biggest point of contention concerning the 1967 borders). For more info, check out Wikipedia’s page on Israeli-occupied territory.

But even the use of the word “borders” is making some people upset. Someone on Twitter sent me this link, which talks about how the map to the right describes armistice lines following the 1967 Six Day War, not mutually agreed upon borders of a cohesive, internationally recognized and legit state. And, apparently, the pre-1967 borders/lines/whatever were really just the result of the cessation of hostilities in 1948, when soldiers (mostly) stopped shooting at each other for the next two decades. (Noticing a pattern here?)

As far as I can find, the outrage over Obama’s comments, from right wing US politicians as well as Israel, is pretty much manufactured. This has been the US’s official position for the last 20+ years, and shouldn’t have surprised anyone. But is it a good position? That, not surprisingly, is much more difficult to determine.

From what I can tell, a big part of the problem is that Obama didn’t really push for a tit-for-tat exchange. That is, he suggested Israel give up the land it acquired in 1967, without pushing for the Palestinians to give up the right of return. Basically, Palestinians want the ability for those who were either forced from their land or fled during conflicts to be able to come back and/or receive financial reparations. Some additionally want for descendants of said refugees to have the same rights. In total, that’d make for between one and four million Palestinians (very vague estimates) who could claim the right of return. Lots of folks are saying “Fine, Israel needs to give up some significant chunks of territory, but not without the Palestinians renouncing the right of return. Obama didn’t call for the Palestinians to do so, and thus screwed the pooch.”

I’m extraordinarily conflicted on the legitimacy of the Right of Return. On the one hand, if the Palestinians were driven out by Israel, that’s pretty bogus. On the other hand, Israel has (reasonably) said “Hey, we didn’t drive them out, our neighbors started attacking us! If the Palestinians fled in 1948, or 1967, or 1972, the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the Arab nations who militarily invaded us.”

At the same time, the borders themselves (or armistice lines, chalk hopscotch courts, or whatever) or seem to be a sticking point, since Israel claimed in the late 1960s that

“We have openly said that the map will never again be the same as on June 4, 1967. For us, this is a matter of security and of principles. The June map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger. I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz. We shudder when we think of what would have awaited us in the circumstances of June, 1967, if we had been defeated; with Syrians on the mountain and we in the valley, with the Jordanian army in sight of the sea, with the Egyptians who hold our throat in their hands in Gaza. This is a situation which will never be repeated in history.”- Abba Eban, Israeli Statesman, in Der Spiegel, November 5, 1969 (Emphasis added)

Right, but you weren’t defeated. And then you weren’t defeated again in the 1970s Yom Kippur War. While talking about the memory of Auschwitz made sense in the 60s, I honestly thing that discussion (which people still bring up today) sounds much weaker 50 years later.

Meanwhile, the Israel has almost withdrawn from the Golan Heights in the past, until a disagreement over ~100 meters (really about whether Syria would get access to the freshwater Sea of Galilee) caused things to break down.

Oh, and lots of well-thought-of Israelis support the 1967 borders! So there isn’t some 100% universal agreement, even in Israel.

At the end of the day, it does seem like Obama committed a faux pas by calling for Israel to make concessions without saying the Palestinians would have to do the same. That said, Israel could have responded by saying “We’ll talk 1967 borders when Palestine talks about giving up the Right of Return.”

Instead, everyone jumped on Obama for being unreasonable, instead of acknowledging that, yes Virginia, Israel will need to make some concessions if it actually wants to move forward on a peace deal.

5 Responses to “How Obama pissed off Israel – the 1967 “borders””

  1. droo says:

    It gets messier because the Arab League (often) usurps the Palestinian’s legitimate grievances in the interest of playing proxy politics against Israel. This bolsters the populist, right-wing Israeli politicians, whose rhetoric pushes moderates on both sides out of the picture.

  2. Aaron says:

    Good analysis. One point that I think is incorrect though is that Israel was not invaded in 1967. The Arab states had a naval blockade (which is apparently an act of war) and were massing their troops at the borders with Israel. It seems likely that they were going to invade, though that is debatable. In any case, Israel didn’t take any chances and attacked first. So, while the Arabs may have started it, it wasn’t by invading.

  3. Cedar says:

    Given how Jews who’ve never, ever been to Israel, and their ancestors haven’t in the past 1000 years, have the right of “return,” it’s pretty bogus for people who lived there for generations not to. Pressuring the Palestinians to give up on the right of return would’ve been the wrong thing to do. And punishing the Palestinians for the actions of the Syrians/Jordanians/Egyptians seems pretty busted too.

  4. […] right, I’m wading back into Israel. Not satisfied with my recent post about Israel, Obama’s speech, and the 1967 borders/lines/whatever, an article I saw in my […]

  5. […] whether Israel is an apartheid state. (My answer: Maaaaaaybe? But I’m skeptical.) About the 1967 “borders” and how they came to be.  About how being unhappy with Israel makes me feel like a bad Jew. And I want to issue a few […]

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