Obama reiterates call for 1967 borders as 'foundation' for Middle East talks

Facing criticism about his Middle East peace proposal, President Obama on Sunday reiterated his recent call to base negotiations for a Palestinian state on Israel's 1967 borders.

The president was quick to guarantee America's commitment to Israeli security, and he clarified that land swaps negotiated between Israeli and Palestinian leaders would ensure that any final boundary would "be different" than the one that existed in 1967.

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"The borders between Israel and Palestine should be based on 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states," Obama told thousands of pro-Israel activists gathered in Washington for the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

"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. That is what mutually accepted swaps means."

He added, "The ultimate goal is two states for two people."

Obama generated international headlines on Thursday when he suggested that Israel's 1967 boundaries be the basis for relaunching the stalled peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Those borders have since been changed, notably during the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel took over parts of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Thousands of Israelis have since settled in the border regions.

Within 24 hours of Obama's original remarks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bluntly rejected the border proposal.

"For there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities," Netanyahu said at a press briefing with Obama Friday. "The first is that while Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines."

Netanyahu has since downplayed the rift, saying the media has blown the dispute "way out of proportion."

"It's true we have some differences of opinion, but these are among friends," he told the Associated Press on Saturday.

Still, Palestinian leaders have pounced on Obama's border proposal, saying they won't return to the negotiating table unless Israeli leaders adopt Obama's position.

"If Netanyahu agrees, we shall turn over a new leaf. If he doesn't then there is no point talking about a peace process – we're saying it loud and clear," Saeb Erekat, the lead negotiator for Fatah, the majority party within the Palestinian Authority, said Sunday, according to international reports.

“Once Netanyahu says that the negotiations will lead to a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, then everything will be set."

Netanyahu, along with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), is scheduled to address AIPAC delegates Monday night. The Israeli leader is also slated to address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.

Across the street from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the site of the AIPAC gathering, scores of pro-Palestine activists protested the conference.

"AIPAC, AIPAC, can't you see? Palestine was meant to be," a protestor chanted through a bullhorn as hundreds of AIPAC delegates streamed toward the convention center.

Obama on Sunday acknowledged that his reference to the 1967 borders had "generated some controversy."

"I wasn't surprised," he said.

But the president did not back down at all from the notion that the 1967 lines be the "foundation" upon which the peace talks launch – a proposal, he noted, that's been championed by past presidents.

"There was nothing particularly original about my proposal," Obama said. "If there is a controversy, then, it is not based in substance."

Josh Block, a senior fellow at Progressive Policy Institute and former AIPAC spokesman, said Obama's remarks Sunday "represented an important and positive change from his remarks on Thursday."

"It reflected an important continuity of U.S. policy going back to President Johnson," Block said in an email.

Still, there was good indication that many AIPAC delegates remain wary of Obama's position on relaunching the peace talks. Speaking to the crowd afterward, Bret Stephens, foreign affairs columnist with the Wall Street Journal, said the reference to the 1967 borders was "not as innocent as the president laid it out today." The audience roared with applause.  

A leading barrier to the talks has been the alliance between Fatah, the leading political voice of the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, which both the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist group.

"The issue isn't where the line is drawn," Stephens said. "The issue is the nature of the Palestinian state."

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee's subpanel on human rights, offered even sharper criticism, saying a return to the 1967 borders "is bad policy born of moral confusion."

Obama on Sunday took great strides to reassure the AIPAC audience – which represents an important voting bloc – that his recent comments are in no way indication that America's support for Israel has waned. 

"The bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable," Obama said. "In both word and deed, we have been unwavering in our support of Israel's security." 

The president said America remains committed to "a strong, secure homeland for the Jewish people," and he endorsed America's continued military support for Israel, particularly in the face of an increasingly militarized Iran.

"Make no mistake," he said, "we will maintain Israel's qualitative military edge."

But his underlying message was that Israel's security is fully dependent on a lasting peace deal with Palestinians – even if it requires tough concessions from both sides.

"A failure to try, is not an option," Obama said. "We cannot afford to wait another decade … The world is moving too fast."

This story was updated at 1 p.m.