WASHINGTON – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday publicly lectured President Barack Obama on the shortcomings of his plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks during a tense Oval Office appearance that laid bare the strained relations between the leaders.
Admonishing a president of the United States on international television, Netanyahu rejected the plan outlined by Obama that would use the borders in effect before 1967 as the starting point for negotiations, saying that doing so would risk Israel’s security and force it to negotiate with “a Palestinian version of al-Qaida.”
“The only peace that will endure is one based on reality, on unshakeable facts,” Netanyahu said, leaning intently toward a grim Obama in the news appearance that followed an unusually long, three-hour meeting.
Obama acknowledged the chasm. “Obviously there are some differences between us in the precise formulation and language, and that’s going to happen between friends,” he said.
The clash was rare even by the standards of frequently fractious ties between U.S. and Israeli leaders. Obama and Netanyahu sat, mostly stiff and unsmiling, and addressed each other by their titles rather than first names.
It has contributed to worry among Israelis, who prefer that their leaders be on good terms with the Americans.
Netanyahu was furious the day before about the nature of Obama’s plan and that he had received little advance warning of it. He declared going into Friday’s meeting that he hoped Obama would ease his position on the question of boundaries and other elements of the plan.
But Obama gave no indication that he was yielding ground. By the time the two spoke publicly Friday, White House officials were prepared for Netanyahu’s reaction and said they were not angered by the Israeli leader’s aggressive approach.
Yet, aides said they felt no compulsion to have Obama provide an immediate retort. One official said Obama’s proposal succeeded in placing the U.S. position on the record and may one day prove an important part of the international dialogue.
Obama has come under increasing pressure from Arab states and European governments to lay out a plan to revitalize the moribund talks.
The proposal to base talks on 1967 lines has been among informal parameters for peace talks that Obama administration officials have considered since taking office. But Obama before now has not offered his own parameters, preferring talks between Palestinians and Israelis.
A White House official said Friday that laying out recommendations now, including the 1967 provisions, “provides a new basis for future negotiations to succeed.”
By launching the U.S. proposal this week, Obama risked further damaging relations with Netanyahu that have been tense for most of the past two and a half years.
The friction dates to 2009, when Netanyahu rebuffed Obama’s call for a freeze of Jewish settlement growth in the West Bank.
In a meeting last year, Obama canceled a joint news appearance, and at one point left Netanyahu alone while he returned to the White House residential quarters.
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. negotiator, said American and Israeli leaders have often battled, but found a way to cooperate. Obama and Netanyahu “have a totally different view of things,” Miller said.
“They have no collaborative relationship,” he said. “So every one of their seven meetings has become a boxing match.”
Spelling out his arguments in the Oval Office session on Friday, Netanyahu said that Israel could never return to the 1967 boundaries because they made Israel so geographically narrow that it would be “indefensible” under an attack.
Likewise, he argued that Israel would be at risk if it withdrew its troops from the Jordan Valley. Obama’s plan calls for Israel to make a phased but ultimately complete withdrawal from the West Bank.
Netanyahu also took a harsher view of Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction that is joining the Palestinian government, than did Obama.
While Netanyahu described it as a “terrorist organization,” Obama called it “an organization that has resorted to terror.”
Netanyahu made clear he would like Obama to stipulate that the Palestinian refugees could not return to Israel, but would be offered a place in a new Palestinian state. Obama said the issue should be decided in negotiations.
Administration officials noted that Netanyahu could have used the opportunity to offer an even longer list of grievances, as he had done a day earlier in Jerusalem, but that he refrained, a sign that tensions may ease.