By Mike Lillis
A growing number of House lawmakers are pushing back against President Obama's recent call to base Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on pre-1967 borders.
Echoing the concerns of Israeli leaders, the critics maintain that reverting to those boundaries – which existed prior to the Six Day War of 1967 – would endanger Israel and empower its enemies.
"It would undermine Israel’s strategic depth, increasing its vulnerability to both military invasions and the sorts of rocket and missile attacks that Hamas carries out in Gaza," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Friday in a statement. "Doubling down on failed policies will not lead to the changes we need. It’s time for the Obama administration to change course.”
"A two-state solution agreed upon by the Israelis and Palestinians should be negotiated through direct talks," Rothman said Friday in a statement, "but it is important to remember that a full return to the 1967 borders will be indefensible for Israel and that talking with terrorists who want to destroy Israel is a non-starter."
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) echoed that sentiment, saying the 1967 borders "were simply not defensible, and Israel must not be made to return to them."
"The President is correct that land swaps built into a peace agreement could make Israel’s borders safe and secure, but make no mistake about it – such territorial adjustments would be very significant so that Israel would no longer be 9 miles wide at its narrowest point."
In a high-profile speech Thursday, Obama called on Israel to accept the 1967 borders as the starting point for launching peace negotiations with Palestinian leaders.
"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," Obama said from the State Department. "The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to pounce. Appearing at the White House alongside Obama on Friday, Netanyahu said demographic changes over the four decades since the Six Day War make reverting to the 1967 lines a fantasy. He rejected Obama's strategy in no uncertain terms.
"While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines," he said, as Obama looked on. "It’s not going to happen. Everybody knows it’s not going to happen. And I think it’s time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it’s not going to happen."
Netanyahu also called for a solution to the "Palestinian refugee problem" – a reference to the thousands of refugees displaced when Israel was created in 1948. He said their sheer numbers threaten the future of Israel as a Jewish democracy.
"Now, 63 years later, the Palestinians come to us and they say to Israel, accept the grandchildren, really, and the great grandchildren of these refugees, thereby wiping out Israel’s future as a Jewish state," he said.
Obama did not address the refugee situation in Thursday's speech – an omission that wasn't overlooked by Ros-Lehtinen.
“Israel cannot be expected to concede on its borders without the assurance of its survival as a Jewish state," she said. "Yet, the President did not reaffirm the previous U.S. commitment that Palestinian refugees must not be resettled within the State of Israel, since that could mean the end of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state."
In the upper chamber, Sen. Orrin Hatch has been critical of Obama's push as well. The Utah Republican, who has veered right in recent months in the face of a tough 2012 reelection bid, has vowed to introduce a resolution rejecting Obama's position on Israel's borderlines.
"Rather than stand by Israel against consistent unprovoked aggression by longtime supporters of terrorism, President Obama is rewarding those who threaten Israel’s very right to exist," Hatch said this week. "This is not only ridiculous, but dangerous."
Not all the reaction on Capitol Hill has been negative. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs panel, said Obama's strategy is hardly a radical one.
"It has been my expectation for many years, dating to the end of the Clinton Administration, that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would involve a border that is close to that of 1967 but with agreed upon land swaps," Berman said in a statement. "That is fully consistent with Israel’s right to have defensible borders and to retain its settlement blocs, positions for which there is overwhelming support in Washington."
Obama is scheduled to appear Sunday morning at the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the nation's top Israel lobby. Netanyahu is slated to speak Monday night.