By Sam Youngman - 05/20/11 10:56 AM EDT
President Obama will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House Friday for a potentially tense meeting, a day after calling for a resumption to Middle East peace negotiations based on a starting point the Israeli rejected immediately.
In a wide-ranging speech Thursday that set out his vision for a rapidly evolving Middle East, Obama called for Israelis and Palestinians to return to the peace process using 1967 borders as a place to begin the discussions — a position Netanyahu called "indefensible."
Basing negotiations on the 1967 borders suggests Israel would give up territory it won in a war fought that year against several Arab nations, though Obama offered the qualifier that final borders should also be the result of “mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”
“Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines, which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines,” Netanyahu’s office said.
Republicans also accused the president of abandoning Israel.
“President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus. He has disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace,” said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, seen by many as the front-runner for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. “He has also violated a first principle of American foreign policy, which is to stand firm by our friends.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Obama was continuing his habit of drawing “a moral equivalence” between the actions of Israelis and Palestinians.
“Three wars were launched against Israel prior to its establishment of new borders in 1967,” Cantor said in a statement. “By keeping the burden and thus the spotlight on Israel, the president is only giving the Palestinian Authority more incentive to carry out its unhelpful game of sidestepping negotiations and failing to put an end to terrorism.”
White House officials had repeatedly said that Obama's speech would not focus on the Middle East peace process, and the decision to explicitly call for the 1967 borders will prompt questions from his own party.
While Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) commended Obama for reaffirming unwavering U.S. support for Israel, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was much more cautious. On the president's discussion of the 1967 borders, Hoyer said: “We must keep in mind that the situation on the ground has clearly changed over the last 44 years. Whatever peace agreement is reached must recognize the reality on the ground.”
The speech sets up a tense Oval Office meeting with Netanyahu, particularly coming after actions by Palestinian groups that Israel saw as a terminal to restarting the peace process.
Obama prodded both sides to make concessions, saying “the international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome.”
He also acknowledged that returning to the 1967 borders would not solve the decades-old conflict, saying the issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees will continue to make peace difficult.
“But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians,” Obama said.
Netanyahu’s office reiterated its stance that Israel should maintain a military presence along the Jordan River as part of a peace agreement, even though that could position Israeli forces in an area desired by Palestinians. Netanyahu claims that the troops are necessary to protect Israel against external security threats.
The prime minister also expressed concern about a pending unity agreement between Fatah, the political party that controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip but is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.
Obama also acknowledged that recent moves by the Palestinians, thought by many to be the cause of Obama’s Middle East special envoy George Mitchell’s resignation last week, mean it will not “be easy to come back to the table.”
The president said the agreement between Hamas and Fatah “raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel.”
“How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” Obama asked. “In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.”
Some observers argued there was little new to Obama’s remarks.
The National Jewish Democratic Council argued the use of the 1967 borders as a basis for talks represented the same approach used by the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
“I don’t see a conceivable settlement that will not have some basis in the 1967 borders,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is not a new U.S. government position.”
But Josh Block, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), said Obama’s proposal made no sense when Palestinian governments refuse to “even be in the same room as Israel, despite Israel’s repeated calls to negotiate, and substantive offers again and again.”
Obama, who will address AIPAC on Sunday, described the divide between Israelis and Palestinians as being emblematic of the choice facing the entire Middle East, a choice “between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future.”
“It’s a choice that must be made by leaders and by people, and it’s a choice that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife,” Obama said.
Netanyahu is scheduled to address AIPAC on Monday and deliver an address to a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday.
—This story was posted at 12:31 and last updated at 8:37 p.m.
—Jordan Fabian contributed to this story.