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Obama: U.S., Israel Have 'Differences' On Peace Plan

  • Richard Solash

U.S. President Barack Obama (right) and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Washington on May 20

U.S. President Barack Obama (right) and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Washington on May 20

Millions of people around the world watched or listened to U.S. President Barack Obama's May 19 speech on the Middle East. But in the hours after he finished, with reactions just starting to pour in, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appeared to be the first world leader to offer an official response -- and he was less than pleased.

"The New York Times" reported that Netanyahu voiced his disapproval even early, by way of a "furious" phone call to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before Obama spoke.

The U.S. president's call for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a return to Israel's pre-1967 borders, plus accompanying land swaps -- and Netanyahu's swift rejection of the idea as leaving Israel existentially vulnerable -- had set the stage for a previously-scheduled meeting between the two leaders at the White House on May 20 that, after initial handshakes, was destined to turn tense.

Speaking at a joint press appearance after the two leaders met for lengthy talks in Washngton, Obama tried to downplay disagreements between the allies. "Obviously, there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language,” he said. “And that's going to happen between friends."

"But what we are in complete accord about is that a true peace can only occur if the ultimate resolution allows Israel to defend itself against threats," he added.

Following the talks with Obama, the "Jerusalem Post" daily quoted an unnamed official as saying that the Israeli prime minister came out of the meeting more encouraged than when he went in.

Border Debate

Netanyahu, however, maintained that a return to 1967 borders would make security for Israel impossible, and said "peace based on illusions will crash eventually on the rocks of Middle Eastern reality."

"While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines because these lines are indefensible [and] because they don't take into account certain changes that have taken place on the ground -- demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years," the Israeli leader said.

The Six-Day War of 1967 saw Israeli forces counter Arab threats along the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian borders and resulted in Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. Sinai has since been returned to Egypt.

Since the war, Israel had built settlements in territories won during the war, a number of which have major Jewish populations. Israel also insists that parts of the territories gained in the war provide essential buffer zones for the tiny state.

The settlements have generated widespread international criticism, along with criticism by a segment of Israelis. Washington, while expressing opposition to the settlements, insists an agreement on the issue should emerge through the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and has blocked UN actions labeling them as illegal.

Palestinians ultimately hope to form a state that unites the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, creating a capital in East Jerusalem.

Earlier this year, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki announced that he would seek recognition for a Palestinian state on Israeli-occupied lands at the United Nations in September.

In his May 19 speech, Obama implicitly warned the Palestinians against pursuing UN recognition of statehood.

Impediments To Peace

Alongside Netanyahu today, he also reiterated another point made in his speech: While encouraging Israel to make concessions, Washington also expects Palestinians to prove that they are prepared to work toward peace.

"It is very difficult for Israel to be expected to negotiate in a serious way with a party that refuses to acknowledge its right to exist and so for that reason, I think the Palestinians are going to have to answer some very difficult questions about this agreement that's been made between Fatah and Hamas," Obama said.

In early May, the Palestinian Fatah movement, which controls areas of the West Bank, signed a unity accord with former rival Hamas, an Iranian-backed militant Islamist movement which de facto runs the Gaza Strip. While Fatah has backed a negotiated peace with Israel, Hamas calls for Israel's destruction. It is regarded as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

Reconciliation between the two groups is considered by many, including Netanyahu, to be a new impediment to a final settlement.

Touching on another message presented in his speech the day before, Obama said he and Netanyahu feel that the spirit of change currently sweeping the Middle East and North Africa potentially provide momentum to the long-stalled peace process.

"We agreed that there is a moment of opportunity that can be seized as a consequence of the Arab Spring but also acknowledged that there are significant perils as well, and that it's going to be important for the United States and Israel to consult closely as we see developments unfold," he said.

Both the United States and Israel have welcomed the prospect for democracies emerging in the region, while fearing the potential rise of Islamist-rooted governments.

While Obama and Netanyahu affirmed their countries' bond in front of reporters, other sharp points of disagreement emerged in the talks, including the strategy advanced in Obama's speech that the future status of Jerusalem, as well as the fate of Palestinian refugees, should be dealt with after a return to pre-1967 borders.

Netanyahu said confirmation of all of Jerusalem as part of Israel and a guarantee of Palestinian refugees returning to only Palestinian lands must be part of an initial deal.

Meanwhile, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni praised Obama's Middle East vision today, and the UN, EU, U.S., and Russian negotiators of the Middle East Peace Quartet also issued a statement in support of Obama's stance.

Obama is scheduled to address the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a major pro-Israel lobbying group, on May 22.

Before he leaves Washington, Netanyahu will address a joint session of lawmakers in the U.S. Congress on May 24, a rare privilege for a visiting leader.

The Israeli position has generally garnered staunch Republican support, and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Obama's speech "threw Israel under the bus."