Barack Obama's Diplomatic Code Words

Barack Obama apparently has trouble with diplomatic code words. Former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, Barack Obama's Middle East advisor, told the Israel Policy Forum that Obama did not realize that "undivided" was a diplomatic "code word" meaning "undivided",  when the candidate delivered his prepared speech at AIPAC, in which he declared -- in a paragraph beginning with the words "Let me be clear" -- that Jerusalem "must remain undivided." 

Obama supposedly thought it could mean "divided" -- but with no checkpoints or barbed wire between the divisions.  A day later, Obama's clear AIPAC statement was "clarified" by an unnamed advisor.

At the Israel Policy Forum, Kurtzer "said it was unfortunate that so much time was being spent dwelling on one word of a 30-minute speech."  But even more unfortunately, we now need to consider two other words Obama used in his speech, and ask whether he understood those "code words" as well. 

In his AIPAC speech, Obama said that "any agreement with the Palestinian people" must provide Israel with "secure, recognized and defensible borders."  (Emphasis added).  The question is whether Obama understood the diplomatic meaning of "defensible borders."

The term "defensible borders" is not a colloquial term.  It has a long diplomatic history.  And it assumed critical importance in connection with both the Gaza disengagement and the current Annapolis process. 

In June 2003 -- a month after the issuance of the Roadmap -- the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs published a paper by former UN Ambassador Dore Gold entitled "Defensible Borders for Israel," which recounted the history of the "defensible borders" concept, beginning with UN Resolution 242 and continuing through statements by Yitzhak Rabin and various U.S. governmental officials.  The paper concluded as follows:

Historically, as Israel undertook new risks for peace, it has been the practice of past U.S. administrations to offer letters of assurance, or even executive agreements, to Israel to help protect its vital interests in the peace process. . . .

Israel's right to defensible borders ought to be acknowledged by the Bush administration.  Should the roadmap to a Palestinian state be implemented, then an appropriate quid pro quo for the establishment of a Palestinian state (with certain security restrictions) would be defensible borders for Israel.  [Emphasis added].

Six months later, Ariel Sharon announced his intention to adopt a disengagement policy, and over the following four months he negotiated a deal with the United States to dismantle all the long-standing settlements in Gaza (plus four more in the West Bank), remove all Israeli military forces from Gaza, and turn over control of the Egyptian border to the Palestinian Authority -- giving the Palestinians a chance to show they could "live side by side in peace and security" -- in exchange for certain formal U.S. commitments that were set forth in the April 14, 2004 letter of President Bush. 

One of the commitments in the April 14, 2004 letter was a formal reassurance that:

The United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to Israel's security, including secure, defensible borders, and to preserve and strengthen Israel's capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats.  [Emphasis added].

The concept of "secure, defensible borders" is a strategic doctrine that differs significantly from the theory of "land for peace."  The latter theory presumed that a return to the 1967 borders (with minor changes), in exchange for a "peace agreement," would produce peace.  In contrast, the concept of "secure, defensible borders" recognizes that Israeli security ultimately depends on borders Israel can defend on its own -- even if the Palestinians do not honor their agreement (or if there is a later dispute with the sovereign Palestinian state).  

The concept of "defensible borders" was contained in the foundational document of the "peace process" -- U.N. Resolution 242, adopted in 1967 -- whose heavily negotiated terms intentionally did not refer to a withdrawal from "all the territories" (and did not mention Jerusalem at all), nor even to a specified portion of the territories, but instead envisioned a withdrawal to new secure borders that would be negotiated and then recognized by all parties.   

Over the years, however, the concept of "land for secure and recognized boundaries" became "land for peace" -- with Palestinians demanding a total withdrawal to the indefensible borders of 1967 (and the Old City of Jerusalem) as the price of the promised "peace."  Even the 97% withdrawal from the West Bank in the December 23, 2000 Clinton Parameters, with a capital in Jerusalem, was rejected by the Palestinians. 

The April 14, 2004 letter, committing the U.S. to "defensible borders," insured that future borders would be governed by Israeli security needs, not by Palestinian demands, and that peace would not depend on unenforceable Palestinian promises but rather by new borders by which Israel could defend "itself, by itself." 

After the letter was issued, Ambassador Gold published another paper noting the differences between the Clinton Parameters and the new principles under the April 14 letter, including the substitution of "defensible borders" for Clinton's concept of land swaps and security "guarantees" that would be monitored by an "international presence."

Earlier this year, President Bush reiterated the U.S. commitment to "defensible borders" in his formal statement in Jerusalem on January 10, 2008, in which he stated that the negotiations pursuant to the Annapolis process "must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders."  Taken together, the April 14 letter and the January 10 statement constitute a commitment on which Israel has relied and on which it is entitled to depend.

On January 14, 2008, four days after the President issued the Jerusalem statement, One Jerusalem held a bloggers call with Ambassador Gold. In that call (at 17:30 to 20:24 of the recording), he said the following with respect to "defensible borders:"

JCI:  . . . [W]e haven't heard the phrase "defensible borders" a lot since the April 14, 2004 letter, but the President did use those terms in his summary of principles at the end of his trip. . . . [Is there] any consensus within the Israeli military and political echelons about what the geographic boundaries of defensible borders would look like?

Ambassador Gold: . . . I have very closely followed this subject and note that when Prime Minister Sharon presented the Bush letter to the Knesset in Hebrew, he laid out many aspects of these defensible borders.  First of all, he said the letter had two territorial components -- it had the settlement blocs as one territorial component, and then the second territorial component were defensible borders.  Later on, he explained to Haaretz in 2005 what he thought was a vital strategic interest of Israel, and in particular he focused on the Jordan Valley

In Sharon's judgment, the Jordan Valley did not mean the river bed close to the line of the river but in fact extended upward to today the Allon Road and, according to ex-Prime Minister Sharon, beyond the Allon Road.  He thought the whole security structure in the Jordan Valley was vital for Israel to retain.  That was also the position of Prime Minister Rabin one month before he was assassinated, when he laid out the borders of Israel to the Knesset. 

Since that time Israeli [unintelligible] have expressed concern with other areas of the West Bank that dominate vital parts of Israel's infrastructure.  There are villages like Budrus and Rantis in the West Bank that are within shooting distance of Ben-Gurion Airport.  If we gave up Budrus and Rantis, even though they are on the other side of the security fence, we would put civilian air travel at Ben Gurion Airport at risk should the Palestinians ever obtain SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles, that can take down a jumbo jet. 

So clearly both protecting vital infrastructure and preventing the Jordan Valley from falling into hostile hands are two elements that repeatedly have been mentioned as part of the concept of defensible borders.  [Emphasis added].

When Barack Obama announced his support at AIPAC for "defensible borders," did he - and the advisors who drafted and reviewed his speech - know what he was talking about?  

Did he think the phrase was simply a colloquial expression expressing an admirable concept, without specific content, or did he understand that the phrase represents diplomatic "code words" with a specific meaning to people familiar with the history of the "peace process"?

Obama should be asked this question, since his commitment to an "undivided" Jerusalem -- which appeared in the same paragraph of his speech that began with the words "Let me be clear" -- turned out to have an idiosyncratic meaning that differed from the common diplomatic understanding of the word.

Rick Richman, who writes periodically for American Thinker and other publications, edits "Jewish Current Issues."
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