Fact-check fail on Israel, American policy, and the pre-1967 borders as a basis for peace negotiations

by John MacBeath Watkins

 Like President Obama, as an undergraduate I studied political science with a concentration in international relations. Perhaps this is why, when people talk rot about the subject, I get my knickers in a bit of a twist.

I've just read Glenn Kessler's "fact check" on Obama's statement that the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel should be used as "a basis" for negotiating a peace deal, with agreed-upon land swaps, the goal being secure and recognized borders.

Kessler blew it.

For example, he quotes this Reagan speech on the topic:

“In the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely ten miles wide at  its  narrowest  point. The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again.”
— President Ronald Reagan, September 1, 1982

He holds this as evidence that Reagan would not ask Israel to withdraw to within the pre-1967 borders. You'd thing the meaning of the sentences quoted would be clear enough, after all...unless you'd taken the trouble to read Reagan's entire speech.

Here's what else he said that day in September 29 years ago:

We base our approach squarely on the principle that the Arab-Israeli conflict should be resolved through the negotiations involving an exchange of territory for peace. This exchange is enshrined in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which is, in turn, incorporated in all its parts in the Camp David agreements. U.N. Resolution 242 remains wholly valid as the foundation-stone of America's Middle East peace effort.

It is the United States' position that - in return for peace - the withdrawal provision of Resolution 242 applies to all fronts, including the West Bank and Gaza.

What does Resolution 242 say? Well, the resolution, adopted unanimously by the U.N. Security Council in Nov. 1967 (remember, we're a permanent member of the Security Council and have the power to veto such resolutions) requires Israel to withdraw to within the 1967 borders. So Reagan said in one breath that he wouldn't ask Israel to live within the pre-1967 borders, and in the next insisted that they withdraw within those borders.

Many politician say two different things that cannot both be true. Reagan's genius was that he could believe two mutually exclusive things at the same time. It was as if he were a politician who prepared for the role like a method actor, knowing that if he said things he didn't believe, people would spot the lie. So he believed what he was required to say.

I saw the mask slip once, in the wake of the early revelations about the Iran-Contra scandal, but within a couple days, he had his lines down and could say them with conviction. Hell, he didn't just say those things, he believed them, the way a method actor learns to believe the character's role. If you play a gangster, you believe the what the gangster says and does, because the conviction comes through to the audience. If you play a president, it's just the same.

You need to understand this to grasp the audacity of that 1982 speech, in which he both said that he would not ask Israel to live within the pre-1967 borders and that he insisted that Israel withdraw from the land it had occupied in the 1967 war. And you need to know the weakness of his logic before you go relying on one thing he said without reading the whole speech it was taken from, because his appeal was never logical consistency. He was able to apply method acting to the entire montage of things he was supposed to say.

Those early borders, by the way, resemble the proposed 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine that the U.N. thought would give both Jews and Muslims land of their own, and peace going forward with two states. Israel accepted the partition, but the Arabs didn't, and the ensuing war resulted in boundaries that were pretty much what the U.N. had proposed, though actually more favorable to Israel than the U.N. offer the Israelis had agreed to.

In addition to successfully defending those borders and taking additional territory in 1948, Israel not only defended them, but seized more territory in the 1956 and 1967 wars. For borders that couldn't possibly be defended, they've done pretty well, and with the Soviet Union no longer sponsoring the Syrian army, Israel is in better shape than it was then militarily.

I'm actually quite pessimistic about the possibility of peace in the Middle East. The Arabs have never accepted the partition of Palestine, and the Israelis, having won war after war, have become so confident of their might that they see no need to give up territory. But that doesn't mean that we can't discern outlines of what peace would look like, if the combatants wanted it enough.

The outlines of a possible peace have been clear since 1947, when the Israelis accepted  the U.N. proposal for something a bit less favorable to Israel than what President Obama has proposed. There have been no takers in the years since, but make no mistake, America was at least as influential in the U.N. in 1947 as it was in 1967, or is now. We've known what to work for all that time, and we have worked for it though a series of administrations of both parties.

Reagan called Israel's withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders "the foundation-stone of America's Middle East peace effort." Obama called it the "basis" for working out a peace deal. You couldn't slide a grain of Sinai sand between those positions. Kessler claims to be "The Fact Checker" and says he reveals "The truth behind the rhetoric." It's all right there with his byline. If only it were true.