President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated their mutual desire for peace during a meeting on Friday, but Netanyahu continued to reject Obama’s push to use Israel's 1967 borders in negotiations, albeit with land swaps, calling those lines “indefensible.”
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The two leaders met in the Oval Office for more than two hours--much longer than their planned 50-minute session--a day after Obama gave a major address on the Middle East. The on-camera, post-summit chat revealed tension between the two men but also the desire of both leaders not to let their differences grow too wide. The reasons are policy based and political: The two nations are as close as any two can be; Israel needs the U.S., and the U.S. is committed to Israel. As a matter of politics, both men are walking a difficult line. Netanyahu was tossed out of the prime minister's post in 1999 in part because he seemed to have strained Israel-U.S. relations too badly. For his part, Obama is eager to show that he's very much a friend of Israel.
Despite the effort to tamp down differences, however, Netanyahu’s reaction was swift and unhappy. In an unusual move for a foreign leader meeting with the president in the Oval Office, Netanyahu used the post-discussion camera time to go on at length rather than keep his remarks short.
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“While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines, because these lines are indefensible,” Netanyahu said. “These were not the boundaries of peace. They were the boundaries of repeated wars because the attack on Israel was so attractive. So we can't go back to those indefensible lines and we're going to have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan [River].”
Netanyahu obliquely invoked the Holocaust, saying that the dream of a Jewish state never died "even in the nadir of the valley of death."
Obama, who spoke first, sought to downplay the nature of the disagreements. “Obviously, there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language, and that's going to happen between friends,” he said. Obama assured Netanyahu that “Israel’s security will remain paramount in U.S. evaluations of any prospective peace deal.”
The two leaders did agree that a Palestinian government backed by Hamas was not a credible negotiating partner. “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. Netanyahu termed them “the Palestinian version of al-Qaida,” pointing out that Hamas condemned Obama for killing Osama bin Laden.
While Obama remained silent about the issue of Palestinian refugees--aside from affirming his belief that Israel has to be a secure, “Jewish” state, a shorthand way of saying that Israel should not be overrun by Palestinian refugees--Netanyahu was eager to keep it in the discussion. He firmly rejected the idea of accepting the refugees into Israel. “I think it’s time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly, it’s not going to happen. The Palestinian refugee problem has to be resolved. It can be resolved, and it will be resolved if the Palestinians chose to do so in a Palestinian state. That’s a real possibility. But it’s not going to be resolved within the Jewish state.”
The two men did have discussions about the Arab Spring, according to Obama’s remarks. He said he gave Netanyahu an overview of the steps the U.S. has taken to pressure the Assad regime in Syria to stop the violence against its own people. Additionally, the president said, the two leaders talked about the threat posed by Iran and reiterated the importance of keeping nuclear weapons out of Tehran's hands.
The bottom line, however, is that discussions have been stalled for some time and are unlikely to be jump-started anytime soon. The Hamas-Fatah alliance is a deal-breaker for the Israelis, while the Palestinians have balked at returning to the bargaining table while Israel continues to build settlements in the disputed territories. Just this week Israel announced plans for 1,600 more apartments in East Jerusalem.
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