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In a blunt display of differences, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the idea of using his country’s 1967 boundaries as the basis for a neighboring Palestinian state on Friday, declaring his objections face-to-face to President Barack Obama who had raised the idea just 24 hours earlier in an effort to revive stalled Mideast peace talks.
Though the two leaders, meeting in the Oval Office, found cordial and predictable agreement on the other central element that Obama outlined in his Mideast address Thursday — ironclad Israeli security alongside a Palestinian nation — progress on the bedrock issue of borders seemed as elusive as ever.
In his speech, Obama gave unprecedented prominence to a long-held U.S. stand that Israel opposes: A Palestinian state should be shaped around the border lines that existed before the 1967 war in which Israel took control of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. An essential part of what Obama proposed was that Israelis and Palestinians would also have to agree to swaps of land to account for Israeli settlements and other current conditions, a point Netanyahu failed to mention.
“While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines,” Netanyahu declared. “These lines are indefensible.”
As they sat together for public comments after their private meeting, Obama sought to put the disagreement in the best light, and in the context of a relationship of two allies — one, however, showing strains of impatience.
“Obviously there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language,” Obama said. “That’s going to happen between friends.”
He quickly added in a reassurance to Netanyahu: “What we are in complete accord about is that a true peace can only occur if the ultimate resolution allows Israel to defend itself against threats, and that Israel’s security will remain paramount in U.S. evaluation of any prospective deal.”
Obama and Netanyahu showed cordiality before the cameras. The president listened intently, his hand cupping his chin, as Netanyahu spoke passionately about his country’s plight and how the path to peace should run.
“Remember that, before 1967, Israel was all of nine miles wide,” Netanyahu said, emphasizing his words with his hands. “It was half the width of the Washington Beltway. And these were not the boundaries of peace; they were the boundaries of repeated wars, because the attack on Israel was so attractive.”
Obama, frustrated by Mideast peace talks that have collapsed, is seeking to get both sides to contend with the issues of borders and security. Even progress on those enormous fronts would still leave unsettled the fate of Jerusalem and of Palestinian refugees. Netanyahu underscored just how difficult that last issue is alone, declaring that Palestinians will not be allowed to settle in Israel as part of any peace plan.
“It’s not going to happen. Everybody knows it’s not going to happen,” he said. “And I think it’s time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it’s not going to happen.”
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Netanyahu’s comments with Obama were tantamount to “his total rejection of the Obama vision and speech.”
“Without Mr. Netanyahu committing to two states on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps, he is not a partner to the peace process,” Erekat said. “I think, when President Obama gave him a choice between dictation and negotiations, he chose dictation.”
On the border matter, the Obama administration up until now has tried to summarize the positions of each party but had not taken a position itself. Obama’s direct reference to the 1967 borders and land swaps in his speech incensed Israel, adding tension to the atmosphere of Netanyahu’s visit.
As Obama pushes for a return to negotiations that he championed prominently last year, that prospect seems bleak.
Netanyahu said his nation could not negotiate with a Palestinian unity government that includes the radical Hamas movement, which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. He said that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had to choose between continuing the deal with Hamas and making peace with Israel.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Netanyahu’s rejection of a return to 1967 lines was “clear evidence that the negotiations option was a waste of time.”
The comments from Netanyahu and Obama, after a longer-than-scheduled meeting that lasted over an hour-and-a-half, shed little light on how the peace process will advance.
The two leaders did not take questions from the press, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was unable in a subsequent briefing to point to any concrete signs of progress.
Netanyahu is to address Congress on Tuesday to press Israel’s position.
On Thursday, Netanyahu was informed shortly before Obama’s speech of its contents by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, according to U.S. officials. Netanyahu sought in vain to get the border language removed from the speech, the officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic exchange.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner in Washington, Amy Teibel traveling with Netanyahu, Karin Laub in Ramallah, West Bank and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press