This morning, Barack Obama addressed the world’s heads of state at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, and declared that achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians should be among the world’s top priorities—along with halting nuclear proliferation, controlling climate change, and jump-starting the global economy. “The time has come to re-launch negotiations—without preconditions,” Obama said, largely reiterating the statements he made during yesterday’s session with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the Waldorf-Astoria.
“No pre-conditions” is, of course, code for Obama’s dropping his earlier insistence that Netanyahu agree to a freeze on settlement construction before negotiations begin—though in his speech, Obama insisted that “we continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” As the New York Times noted this morning, it’s a pragmatic shift aimed at getting talks started sooner rather than later on the full slate of so-called permanent-status issues: borders, the rights of Palestinian refugees, and control over Jerusalem.
But alongside the usual language on establishing two viable states living side by side in peace and security, we were surprised to hear Obama refer to something that didn’t, as far as we can tell, come up yesterday at all: the desire to guarantee the Palestinians “contiguous territory.” It’s not the first time the issue has come up—Bush mentioned it, and so did the Mideast Quartet of negotiating partners in their June report—and it’s not immediately clear what Obama meant. Geographically, of course, a territory that joins the West Bank and Gaza would mean splitting Israel, but “contiguous” has also been used to refer to a guaranteed transit corridor between the two Palestinian areas, and, less substantially, to a West Bank free from a “Swiss cheese” patchwork of Israeli settlements.