Netanyahu dismisses Obama’s proposals

Won’t accept ’67 borders; leaders meet for 2 hours

President Obama reassured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel’s security would remain paramount in any US push to resolve the Mideast conflict. President Obama reassured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel’s security would remain paramount in any US push to resolve the Mideast conflict. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)
By Steven Lee Myers
New York Times / May 21, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel told President Obama yesterday that he shared his vision for a peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and then promptly listed a series of nonnegotiable conditions that have kept the two sides at an impasse for years.

Sitting at Obama’s side in the Oval Office, leaning toward him and at times looking him directly in the eye, the Israeli leader rejected compromises of the sort Obama had outlined the day before in hopes of reviving a moribund peace process. Obama, who had sought to emphasize Israel’s concerns in his remarks moments earlier, stared back.

In his public remarks, delivered after a meeting that lasted more than two hours, Netanyahu warned against “a peace based on illusions,’’ seemingly leaving the prospect for new talks as remote as they have been since the last significant US push for peace collapsed last fall. Officials said that the meeting was productive but that there were no plans for formal negotiations or any mechanisms in place to push the two sides forward.

Most significant among his public objections, Netanyahu said that Israel would not accept a return to the boundaries that existed before the war in 1967 gave it control of the West Bank and Gaza. He called such a border indefensible.

On Thursday, Obama said for the first time that those borders should to be the starting point for negotiations to create a Palestinian state, although he emphasized that they would be adjusted to some degree through land swaps to account for Israeli settlements. Netanyahu simply ignored that nuance, as did many conservative critics here in Washington, exacerbating tensions with the administration.

“Remember that before 1967, Israel was all of 9 miles wide; it’s half the width of the Washington Beltway,’’ Netanyahu said.

He was referring to the narrowest point between the West Bank and the Mediterranean Sea, north of Tel Aviv, while displaying a well-honed familiarity with American cultural references to make his point for a US audience.

“These were not the boundaries of peace,’’ Netanyahu said. “They were the boundaries of repeated wars.’’

If Obama and his aides hoped his speech Thursday would give fresh momentum to the peace process, Netanyahu’s reaction, first in an angry phone call Thursday to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then face to face with the president a day later, underscored why the conflict has long vexed presidential peacemaking.

“There was no expectation the outcome of the speech would be an immediate resumption of talks,’’ a senior administration official said after the meeting. “It may take some time.’’

Obama did not back away from his proposals, despite criticism from Israel’s staunchest supporters, especially among Republicans, who accused the president of setting out a framework intended to force Israeli concessions.

But Obama talked at length yesterday in acknowledging Israel’s security concerns and in emphasizing what he called “the extraordinary bonds between our two countries.’’ When Netanyahu called Obama “the leader of a great people’’ and then fumbled with his words after calling himself “the leader of a much smaller people,’’ the president interrupted to correct him.

“A great people,’’ he said.

As he did in his remarks Thursday, Obama called the region’s turmoil “a moment of opportunity’’ to promote democracy and stability in the Middle East and North Africa, even as he acknowledged that “there are significant perils,’’ reflecting a widely held perception in Israel that the events have made a peace settlement riskier than ever.

Obama has not directly discussed his new peace effort with the Palestinians, including the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, although lower-level US diplomats have. The Palestinian reaction has been relatively muted. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas, issued a statement after yesterday’s meeting at the White House saying that Netanyahu’s remarks amounted to “an official rejection of Mr. Obama’s initiative, of international legitimacy, and of international law.’’

Obama outlined his proposals in part to put the Israeli-Palestinian divide in the context of US support for democratic changes in the Arab world but also to try to head off a worsening of the conflict as the Palestinians campaign to win recognition as an independent state at the UN General Assembly meeting in September.

Obama warned that such steps would be little more than symbolic and could prove counterproductive. The meeting between him and Netanyahu, their seventh since Obama took office in 2009, was scheduled to last less than an hour but extended to more than double that.

An Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, quoted Netanyahu as telling his aides: “I went in with certain concerns. I came out encouraged.’’

Publicly, Obama reassured Netanyahu that Israel’s security would remain paramount in any US push to resolve the conflict.

“Our ultimate goal has to be a secure Israel state, a Jewish state, living side by side in peace and security with a contiguous, functioning, and effective Palestinian state,’’ Obama said. “Obviously there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language, and that’s going to happen between friends.’’

Netanyahu emphasized that Israel would not accept the return of Palestinian refugees to Israeli soil.