Obama Says Israel's Security Is 'Paramount'

President Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in the Oval Office at the White House on Friday. i i

President Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in the Oval Office at the White House on Friday. Charles Dharapak/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in the Oval Office at the White House on Friday.

President Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in the Oval Office at the White House on Friday.

Charles Dharapak/AP

Following a White House meeting Friday with President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a central tenet of a peace proposal Obama had outlined a day earlier.

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

In his speech about Middle East issues Thursday, Obama had reiterated U.S. support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, suggesting that Israel revert to the territory it held prior to its gains in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, while allowing for swaps of land between the two future states.

"These were not the boundaries of peace," Netanyahu said at the White House. "They were the boundaries of repeated wars."

Obama and Netanyahu sought to emphasize areas of agreement, including concerns about Iran and Syria. Obama said that "Israel's security would remain paramount" as his administration evaluates any potential peace deal.

But Obama did not suggest how his ideas would be implemented in the face of Netanyahu's dismissal of them.

Tension And Friendship

Relations between the two leaders have been testy. According to The New York Times, Obama has told aides that he does not believe Netanyahu is willing to make the kind of serious concessions needed to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

Israeli officials have complained over the past two days that the Obama administration does not understand the "reality" of Israel's situation.

Just before boarding his plane to Washington, Netanyahu released a statement saying that Obama's proposal would leave his country vulnerable. He implicitly threatened to block Obama's ideas by calling on Israel's many friends in Congress.

It's likely to be just the beginning of months of difficult negotiations and angry politics leading up to an expected United Nations vote in September regarding the prospect of Palestinian statehood.

Caught Off Guard By Events

Obama's plan was an attempt to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which have been moribund for months. His Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, resigned last week.

Netanyahu's visit to Washington comes at what was already a difficult moment for Israel. On Tuesday, he will speak to a joint session of Congress. He will also address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel advocacy group. Obama will speak to AIPAC as well.

Israel has been caught off guard by the events of the "Arab spring," particularly the downfall of its longtime ally in Egypt, ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Now protests demanding self-determination have come to Israel.

"Israel today, because of events in its own neighborhood and developments at home, has been forced into a very passive posture to maintain the status quo," says Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "What's happening in the Arab world is hard for Israelis to get their hands around."

Further Difficulties At Home

On Sunday, Palestinians staged mass protests in honor of the nakba, or "catastrophe," their term for Israeli independence day. Palestinians demonstrated in the territories and in neighboring countries, breaching the border between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Israeli security forces shot at Palestinians in various locations, killing 16 and injuring scores more.

Fatah, the political party that controls the West Bank, recently reached an accord with Hamas, which governs Gaza, with the two sides working to create a unity government. The U.S., Israel and several other nations classify Hamas, which condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden, as a terrorist organization.

All of this seems to have hardened the Israeli government's position.

On Friday, Obama emphasized that Israel could not be expected to negotiate with Hamas, which does not recognize its right to exist. Netanyahu said that Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, would have to choose between keeping his pact with Hamas or making peace with Israel.

"Some of the developments that have taken place in the last few weeks have only enhanced Bibi's position vis-a-vis the Palestinians," says Robert Danin, a former State Department official who has been involved in peace process negotiations, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. "All these support the narrative that Israel is under siege, and how can we make compromises with these people?"

The Palestinian Position

After Obama's speech, which appeared to reject the idea of a U.N. vote recognizing Palestine as a state, Palestinian officials vowed to press on with their effort.

"We cannot wait indefinitely while Israel continues to send more settlers to the occupied West Bank and denies Palestinians access to most of our land and holy places, particularly in Jerusalem," Abbas wrote in The New York Times on Sunday. "Neither political pressure nor promises of rewards by the United States have stopped Israel's settlement program."

As Obama spoke Thursday, Israelis approved construction of 1,500 new homes in disputed quarters of Jerusalem.

Danin, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggests that Palestinians will proceed with the political plans, both in terms of setting up a unity government that includes Hamas and pushing for a statehood vote, because there are no "opportunity costs" involved in doing so. By that he means they don't expect to get anywhere with the Netanyahu government at the negotiating table at this point.

"It's clear to us that he is not interested in negotiating," says Diana Buttu, a former legal and communications adviser to the Palestinian Authority, who is now a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

More Protests To Come

Buttu suggests that if Israel is unwilling to make any serious concessions, Palestinians will continue to press their grievances, appealing to the court of world opinion.

"I don't think the Arab spring is going to stop at the borders of Egypt or Syria or Libya," she says. "It's going to go beyond that. This is an eventuality that the Israelis have to be prepared for."

Palestinians have shown themselves in the past to be fully capable of launching a sustained set of protests. The prospect of a third intifada has led some U.S. and Israeli officials to argue that Israel will have to get serious about negotiations or offer the Palestinians something of substance — or risk increasing international isolation.

Any Way Out?

Obama's plan had some potential to break the logjam, suggests Yoram Peri, a former political adviser to the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Peri is now the director of the Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.

Obama's approach is "interesting and new," Peri says, because it would divide negotiations into two stages. First, questions surrounding borders and recognition, and secondly, the even more intractable problems of the status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return.

"The new approach is balanced," Peri says. "Palestinians have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Israel has to accept the 1967 lines as the baseline for the future borders."

Peri believes Obama would bring the same balanced approach to the second, more difficult stage of negotiations. But that doesn't mean he'd be likely to meet with success.

"My assessment: Neither party will accept the new proposal," he says. "The march to the U.N. in September continues."

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