WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama reassured a powerful pro-Israel group that America’s support for the Jewish state’s security is “ironclad,” but insisted on a sense of urgency about reviving peace talks that he said would require both Israelis and Palestinians to make “hard choices.”
“The current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination,” Obama said, saying that he had expressed that impatience to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in their private meeting Friday.
Netanyahu had publicly lectured Obama after their meeting. He objected to the president’s formula, set out in a speech Thursday, that negotiations should have as their starting point Israel’s borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, modified by negotiated swaps of land between the two sides. Netanyahu had said the 1967 borders were “indefensible” and had ignored Obama’s inclusion of land swaps as part of the formula.
Administration officials have been open in their irritation at the prime minister’s words. And Obama made clear that he believed his position had been mischaracterized. “Since questions have been raised, let me repeat what I actually said on Thursday – not what I was reported to have said,” he said.
He insisted that he does not want Israel pared back to the state that existed before the 1967 war. Israel must be able to “defend itself – by itself – against any threat,” he said. In the end, the Middle East map will look different “than the one that existed on June 4, 1967,” the day before the war began, he said. “That’s what mutually agreed-upon swaps mean,” Obama added. “It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.”
His words appeared to have reassured many in the audience, who applauded repeatedly, suggesting that Obama will pay little, if any, domestic political price for the quarrel with Netanyahu. Afterward, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee put out a statement saying “we appreciate his statement that the U.S. does not expect Israel to withdraw to the boundaries that existed between Israel and Jordan in 1967 before the Six Day War.”
But, given the zero-sum nature of Middle Eastern politics, Obama’s emphasis on the land-swap component of his formula drew objections from the Palestinian side. “We were happier three days ago, before hearing his explanation,” said Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official, in an interview. “He simply dismissed today any chance of going back to 1967 borders.”
A White House senior adviser gave some insight into why the president chose this moment to lay out a specific formulation for a peace accord. The aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have stalled in part because “there was no clear foundation for them.”
“The principles he (Obama) described on security and territory can provide a strong foundation for when talks do start,” the aide said. What’s more, Obama’s gambit has the potential to head off a possible Palestinian attempt to gain statehood unilaterally through a direct appeal to the United Nations, the aide said. “These principles can try to steer the international community away from a unilateral agreement,” the aide said.