Obama firm on plan for talks on Mideast

Says border stance misrepresented

Pro-Palestinian Jewish demonstrators rallied in Washington at the site of President Obama’s speech to a pro-Israel group. Pro-Palestinian Jewish demonstrators rallied in Washington at the site of President Obama’s speech to a pro-Israel group. (Jose Luis Magana/ Associated Press)
By Helene Cooper
New York Times / May 23, 2011

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WASHINGTON — President Obama, speaking yesterday to the nation’s foremost pro-Israel lobbying group, repeated his call for Palestinian statehood based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders adjusted for land swaps. He also challenged the Israeli government to “make the hard choices that are necessary to protect a Jewish and democratic state for which so many generations have sacrificed.’’

In his remarks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the president, while offering praise for the relationship with Israel, did not walk back from his speech on Thursday, which infuriated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.

Rather, the president took indirect aim at Netanyahu, first by repeating what the Israeli prime minister so objected to — the phrase “pre-1967 borders’’ — and then by challenging those who he said had “misrepresented’’ his position.

“Let me repeat what I actually said on Thursday,’’ Obama said in firm tones at one point, “not what I was reported to have said.’’

“I said that the United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jor dan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. 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 emphasized the “mutually agreed swaps,’’ then went into an elaboration of what he believes that means. Netanyahu, in his critique of Obama’s remarks, had ignored the “mutually agreed swaps’’ part of the president’s proposal.

“Since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what ‘1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps’ means,’’ Obama said. “By definition, it means that the parties themselves — Israelis and Palestinians — will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.

“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.’’

“There was nothing particularly original in my proposal,’’ he said. “This basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous US administrations.’’

Netanyahu’s angry reaction last week infuriated Obama administration officials, who saw the proposal as a modest compromise from the more dramatic all-encompassing US peace plan some White House advisers had been advocating. In particular, administration officials were angered by Netanyahu’s lecturing tone during statements the two leaders gave Friday.

Yesterday, Obama also assured the lobbying group that the administration was steadfast in its “opposition to any attempt to de-legitimize the state of Israel,’’ but warned that Israel would face growing isolation without a credible Middle East peace process.

Yesterday’s audience, which had been quiet, cheered Obama, although the cheers were far more muted than the standing ovation they had given at other points of Obama’s speech, like when he talked about Iran and when he reiterated his opposition to a looming UN vote on Palestinian statehood.

“I know very well that the easy thing to do, particularly for a president preparing for reelection, is to avoid any controversy,’’ Obama said. “I don’t need Rahm’’ — former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel — “to tell me that.’’

But, Obama added, “as I said to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I believe that the current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination. I also believe that real friends talk openly and honestly with one another.’’

Yesterday, Netanyahu said in a statement after Obama’s remarks that he supported the president’s desire to advance peace and resolved to work with him to find ways to renew the negotiations.

Netanyahu is to address the pro-Israel lobby tonight and Congress tomorrow.

The president’s speech yesterday came before he left on a weeklong trip to Europe, where he will meet with allied leaders and seek their help with the political turmoil in the Arab world and the war in Afghanistan.

People close to the administration have pushed back against the notion Obama was signaling a major shift in US policy on Thursday. “No, he wasn’t,’’ said his newly departed special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, when asked that question yesterday.

“The president didn’t say that Israel has to go back to the ‘67 lines,’’ Mitchell said on ABC’s “This Week.’’ “He said ‘with agreed swaps.’ Those are significant.’’

Mitchell went on: “ ‘Agreed’ means through negotiations; both parties must agree. There’s not going to be a border unless Israel agrees to it, and we know they won’t agree unless their security needs are satisfied.’’