In what country is the Knesset? That sounds like a rhetorical question, akin to the one Groucho Marx would ask losers on his TV show so they would get a consolation prize: “who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?”
Yet it seems that this question has stumped the State Department. It does not know or will not say what country the Knesset is in, nor—one must assume—does it know what country the prime minister’s office, the Israel Museum, or especially the Western Wall are in. The proof is in a remarkable press release from State about the travels of Deputy Secretary James Steinberg. The May 18 release, in toto, is as follows:
Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg visits Israel, Jerusalem and the West Bank May 18-19, 2011. In Israel, Deputy Secretary Steinberg met with Israeli academic and student leaders. In the West Bank, he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian officials. Among other issues, he discussed moving forward on Middle East peace as well as the recent fundamental changes in the region and the United States’ response to them. On May 19, he will participate in the U.S.-Israel Strategic Dialogue. The Strategic Dialogue allows senior U.S. and Israeli leaders to discuss, on a regular basis and in depth, the many issues that affect our mutual security and partnership.
I suppose the poor benighted Israelis believed they were hosting Steinberg in their country when he visited government offices. But he knew better. What makes this especially egregious is that Israeli government offices—where Mr. Steinberg would have had his official meetings—are actually in west Jerusalem, the portion Israel controlled even before 1967. Yet the Clinton State Department is apparently unwilling to call even that portion of the city "Israel."
This has not always been the position of the United States government. On May 18, 2008, exactly three years before the Steinberg announcement, the Bush White House issued a press release beginning as follows: “The President and Mrs. Bush will travel to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt from May 13-18, 2008. In Israel, the President will meet with President Peres and Prime Minister Olmert and address the Knesset.” So foolish and ignorant, so consumed by pro-Israel bias, was the Bush administration that it obviously believed the Knesset to be in Israel.
There is a very serious point here. In the last two days we have seen considerable debate over the so-called “1967 borders,” and President Obama said that “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” Those swaps are usually said to be needed to take account of settlement activity in the years since 1967, but that is entirely wrong. Indeed, the entire position that the basis must be “1967 lines” is wrong, for several reasons.
The first is historical: this has not been the American position and it constitutes a damaging abandonment of our traditional support for Israel.
As Glenn Kessler pointed out in his “Fact Checker” blog the Washington Post, in September 1968 President Johnson said: “It is clear, however, that a return to the situation of 4 June 1967 will not bring peace. There must be secure and there must be recognized borders.” President Reagan said, in September 1982: “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.” Reagan’s secretary of State, George Shultz, was equally categorical in September 1988: “Israel will never negotiate from or return to the 1967 borders.” Citations from Presidents Clinton and Bush make the same points.
The second reason is legal. U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 did not require that Israel withdraw, after the 1967 war of aggression against it, from every inch it had captured, but rather from some of it. The resolution said Israel should have “secure and recognized boundaries” and obviously contemplated changes in the 1949 armistice lines that had existed until the 1967 war broke out. Put another way, Resolution 242 can be said to have viewed the 1949 armistice lines—which President Obama called “the 1967 lines”—as delineating a minimum Israeli territory, to which more would now be added.
The third reason is security, for the reasons Presidents Johnson and Reagan, as well as George W. Bush and Secretary of State Shultz, well understood. We should not be asking an ally to begin the negotiation from the assumption that every deviation from the 1949 armistice lines is wrong, is a problem, is a virtual act of aggression, when we know full well that the 1949 armistice lines are simply not the secure and defensible borders we have long said we support.
The fourth reason is what might be called logic, or common sense, or realism. While Deputy Secretary Steinberg and Secretary Clinton’s State Department may believe that the Western Wall of the ancient Temple is actually not in Israel, and are apparently unwilling to confirm that the Knesset and prime minister’s office are in Israel, it’s an unsustainable position. It is a ludicrous, insulting, morally untenable position. I urge some member of Congress to put this to the Secretary Clinton at her next appearance, or some journalist to ask it of her at her next press conference: “In what country is the Knesset? And in what country is the Western Wall of the Temple?”
What is striking about all four reasons that the “1967 lines” cannot be the basis for negotiations is that they have nothing to do with settlements. All existed before there was one single settlement. It would be wrong to ask Israel to negotiate from the 1949 armistice lines even if not one settlement had been built.
We should not be asking Israel to negotiate for the Knesset or the Western Wall, nor treating the 1949 armistice lines as if they were holy ordinances laid down in the Bible. Those lines were the product of war. And Israel’s control of Sinai and Gaza, which it has given up, and of the West Bank, which it still controls, are and were equally the products of aggressive war aimed at eliminating the Jewish State. To call for negotiations is fair. To burden an ally by weakening its negotiating position is not. The Knesset is in Israel, and the Western Wall is in Israel, and the sooner the Obama administration realizes this, the closer it will be to a Middle East policy worthy of our country and its long alliance with our ally in Jerusalem—which is, actually, the capital of the state of Israel.