President Barack Obama is conceding that he has differences with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu on a future state for Palestinians but that such disagreements happen “between friends.”
Obama spoke after a lengthy meeting with Netanyahu today at the White House. Both men greeted reporters with smiles despite the deep tension surrounding their talks.
Netanyahu told Obama that Israel values the U.S. president’s efforts to advance the peace process.
The two leaders spoke after Obama declared in a speech that the United States supports a creation of a Palestinian states based on the border lines that existed before the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel forces occupied east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
Netanyahu said Israel can make some concessions but cannot back to the 1967 lines, which he called “indefensible.”
The president yesterday pledged U.S. support for the democracy protests of the Arab Spring, calling this “a moment of opportunity.” But he had tough words for the years-long search for Middle East peace, saying the world “is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome.”
CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante said today’s encounter pit a president deeply frustrated with a Mideast peace effort in shambles against an Israeli leader who says he cannot do business with the newly-joined Palestinian government.
The president called for a resumption of peace talks, and for the first time put explicit U.S. approval on a key Palestinian demand: “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines, with mutually-agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states,” the president said.
That would mean Israeli troops would withdrawal to the borders that existed in 1967 – before Israel took over all of Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately rejected any deal that would mean giving up territory gained in the 1967 War, even though in the final agreement Israel would likely retain its largest settlements.
And just to drive the point home, the Israelis announced yesterday that they plan to build 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, despite calls by the U.S. for settlement-building to stop.
On CBS’ “The Early Show,” former Assistant Secretary of State Jamie Rubin said the president’s speech invited the harsh tone from the Israelis.
“That’s partly a function of his willingness in the past to put to the Israeli government his differences on issues like settlements, which is now what the Israeli government is complaining about,” Rubin said. “So to the extent that the Israelis respond to President Obama’s urging that they get serious about the negotiations, this could have a positive effect. But right now, it’s turned into a real diplomatic flap.”
Israeli gamesmanship at the fore in W.H. meeting
President Obama’s stance on the 1967 borders was not a major policy change, since the U.S – along with the international community and even past Israeli governments – previously endorsed an agreement building on the 1967 lines.
But it was the first time he’d explicitly endorsed those borders as a starting point, a position Netanyahu rejects.
Mr. Obama said Israel can never be a truly peaceful Jewish state if it insists on “permanent occupation.” But he did say the 1967 borders should be accompanied by land swaps agreed to by both sides, which could accommodate existing Jewish settlements.
The president’s speech came less than a week after demonstrations along Israel’s border in which 15 protesters were killed.
Mr. Obama may hope Palestinians will react to his taking their side by not seeking unilateral statehood at the United Nations this fall. “Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state,” the president said Thursday. “And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.”
Netanyahu’s tough response to Mr. Obama’s speech “expresses disappointment at the absence of central items that Israel had demanded, primarily the (Palestinian) refugees,” a senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters traveling with the prime minister.
The official said Netanyahu was disappointed the speech did not address the Palestinian demand to repatriate to Israel millions of Palestinians, most descendants of people who were driven from or fled homes in the war over the Jewish state’s 1948 creation.
“There is a feeling that Washington does not understand the reality, Washington does not understand what we face,” the official said.
Ahead of his trip to Washington, Netanyahu delivered a speech to his parliament in which he made clear his opposition to talks with a newly constituted Palestinian government that shares power between the mainstream Palestinian Fatah faction led by Mahmoud Abbas and the radical Hamas movement that rules Gaza. He also made a series of demands that the Palestinians – and especially Hamas – are not likely to meet. Among them were dropping their claim to east Jerusalem, their would-be capital, and recognizing Israel as the Jewish homeland.
Palestinians, for their part, refuse to negotiate while Israel continues to expand Jewish enclaves in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want to be part of an eventual state. Israel refuses to freeze settlement construction, saying the matter should be resolved through negotiations.