White House Goes After ‘Occupation’

White House Chief of Staff James McDonough
White House Chief of Staff James McDonough

WASHINGTON — After remaining largely silent since 2011 on what borders a negotiated two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would encompass, the White House once again reanimated its call for the borders of two future states to be based on “1967 borders.”

Delivering the keynote address to around 3,000 attendees at this year’s policy conference for the left-wing pro-Israel organization J Street, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough laid out the administration’s current position on where it believes the two sides have the best chance at dividing the territories.

“In the end, we know what a peace agreement should look like. The borders of Israel and an independent Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” said McDonough. “Each state needs secure and recognized borders, and there must be robust provisions that safeguard Israel’s security.”

McDonough, though a bland and unemotional speaker, delivered a no-holds barred direct attack on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu statement prior to national elections last week that a Palestinian state would not be born under his watch. McDonough peppered his speech with multiple references to what he called “Israeli occupation.”

“An occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end, and the Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state,” McDonough continued. “President Obama still firmly believes what he said in Jerusalem two years ago — that peace is necessary, just, and possible. Peace is necessary because it is the only way to ensure that a secure State of Israel is both Jewish and democratic.”

President Barack Obama last invoked the 1967 borders during a 2011 speech preceding a visit by Netanyahu to the White House, creating a firestorm among pro-Israel groups in the United States and stern admonition from Netanyahu during the visit; at the time, he called such borders “indefensible.”

Until now, including throughout Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts at peace negotiations in early 2014, the administration has largely avoided publicly supporting a return to the 1967 lines.

The speech by McDonough comes less than a week after Netanyahu and his Likud party won a decisive victory over a unified bloc made up of Israeli parties spanning the center-left to far left of Israel’s political spectrum.

Netanyahu’s pre-election response to a question posed by Israeli media that a two state solution would not be reached under his leadership has been widely attacked by Jewish groups in the United States and has been invoked multiple times by administration officials. Although Netanyahu walked back his statement in appearances on multiple U.S. media outlets last week, the administration said that it remains uncertain which statements reflect Netanyahu’s true intentions and whether the United States can depend on his honest cooperation in any future attempts at reviving negotiations.

In his phone call to congratulate Netanyahu on his electoral victory — which, coming two days after election is being viewed by many as a snub to Netanyahu — the president, while clarifying the United States’ support for the safety and security of Israel, told the prime minister that the administration will begin a process of reevaluating the relationship between the two nations.

“I think that it’s the position of the United States that we do take [Netanyahu] at his word,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said during his daily press briefing on March 20. “But he was quite clear that he did not envision a scenario where a Palestinian state would be established while he was the prime minister of Israel. And that I do think that calls into question his commitment to a policy objective that has been in place for a number of years now.”

Earnest implied that possible changes to the U.S.-Israel relationship could include the United States discontinuing its role as the lone veto against perceived anti-Israel resolutions in the U.N. Security Council, including moves by the Palestinian Authority to unilaterally seek international recognition of statehood.



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