President Obama was mending fences on Sunday at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual meeting. He reasserted America’s steadfast support for the Jewish state, and claimed that his comments on Israel in Thursday’s Middle East policy address had been misunderstood. He quoted the Talmud and alluded to the Holocaust. When it came to the status of Jerusalem, however, the great orator had nothing to say.
Mr. Obama defended his comments last week on Israel’s 1967 borders - actually the 1949 ceasefire line - saying an Israeli-Palestinian territorial settlement “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” is simply stating “publicly what has long been acknowledged privately.” Mr. Obama sought to claim credit for focusing public attention on a contentious international issue, but this actually explains why his diplomatic efforts have been largely fraught with failure.
Diplomacy, as the name implies, requires tact; making matters explicit can sometimes retard the process. We saw this in 2009 when the Obama administration attempted to goad India and Pakistan to settle the status of the disputed region of Kashmir, which instantly killed White House hopes of brokering a “grand bargain” in South Asia. Perhaps Mr. Obama would like to try the same frank and open approach to the Taiwan question. If so, he would probably start a war.
In some circumstances, a studied vagueness can hurt the process. This is the case with Jerusalem. Appearing at AIPAC in 2008, Mr. Obama declared, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” On Sunday, he avoided mentioning Jerusalem at all, and last week he only said the city’s status was an “emotional and wrenching” issue that would only be resolved after the border issue was settled.
Mr. Obama needs a better map. The 1967 line cuts directly through Jerusalem, and the city’s status cannot be detached from the border issue. Before 1967, the Western Wall - where Mr. Obama mentioned he visited and prayed - was barred to Jews despite a provision in the 1949 armistice agreement that all be given access. Israel captured the eastern half of Jerusalem in the 1967 war and annexed it, but Palestinians still claim it as their capital. Although candidate Barack Obama strongly supported a united Jerusalem in 2008, President Obama’s administration denounced new construction in eastern Jerusalem as illegal settlement activity in 2009.
To say that a divided city is the starting point for negotiations concedes ground that no Israeli government will accept. There is no possible parcel to “swap” that either party will agree is as important as the Temple Mount. Muslims claim it is the third holiest site in Islam, but it is at the center of Jewish identity. Mr. Obama might as well suggest making Mecca an interfaith timeshare.
The Obama administration does a disservice to the Palestinians to hold out hope that they will have any part of Jerusalem as their capital. U.S. timidity on this issue has led to the current stalemate. So long as Palestinians think there is hope of gaining part of Jerusalem in a concession agreement, they will not budge on this demand. The reality is, there is no such hope. U.S. diplomats who want to make progress on the larger issue of a peace settlement should start with the proposition Mr. Obama stated in 2008: that Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided. That is, if Mr. Obama still believes it - but that’s his little secret.