Obama Sticks To His Mideast Plan Before AIPAC

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In a speech to the country's largest pro-Israel lobby on Sunday, Obama focused on the U.S. alliance with Israel and said a delay in the peace process would undermine the security of the Jewish state. NPR's Ari Shapiro tells host Liane Hansen more about the speech and the reaction to it.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Today, President Barack Obama addresses the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. It's the country's largest pro-Israel lobby. Mr. Obama focused the United States' alliance with Israel and said a delay in the peace process would undermine the security of the Jewish state.

NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro has just returned from the Washington convention center, where President Obama spoke. Thanks for coming in, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO: You're welcome, Liane.

HANSEN: Well, as you know, the address today follows his speech he made this past week where he suggested Israel's 1967 borders as a basis for future peace talks. It was somewhat controversial. Did the president try to explain himself today?

SHAPIRO: He actually got a laugh. The quote was, he said, that generated some controversy over the past few days. And the people in the audience laughed because, to say the least, it generated controversy. As you remember, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called out President Obama publically in the Oval Office, saying that position was indefensible.

So, President Obama tried to restate what he first had tried to state on Thursday, saying the 1967 borders would be the beginning, with swaps that key part meaning with swaps of territory, he said means ultimately the Israelis and Palestinians would decide on borders that would not be identical to the 1967 borders. Let's listen to what he said.

President BARACK OBAMA: Since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps means. 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 4th, 1967. That's what mutually agreed upon swaps means.

HANSEN: We're heading into an election year, Ari. And Mr. Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote then, in 2008. Do you think he risks jeopardizing that support now?

SHAPIRO: It's an informal poll, but a lot of the people who I spoke with in the convention center said their support for President Obama was diminished with this position that he's publically taking, even though he says it's no different from the position that president have taken before him. Still, none of them who said they supported President Obama in 2008 said that this is likely to change their support for him this time around.

You know, the election is a little ways off but this theme of tension with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a pretty consistent one for the last couple years of his presidency.

HANSEN: What was it like inside the convention center? I understand AIPAC put the number of attendees at 10,000?

SHAPIRO: That's right, it was a huge crowd. They were very enthusiastic. They gave President Obama several standing ovations, they applauded quite bit. There was one report of boos in the audience. From where I was sitting, I didn't hear any of them. On the whole, it seemed a receptive audience that was happy to have President Obama come speak to them.

Of course, later on in this conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going to speak to Congress, other Republican Congressional leaders are going to speak to this conference. So, President Obama may have the biggest megaphone on the issue this weekend, but it's not the only one.

HANSEN: And it's just before he goes to Europe.

SHAPIRO: That's right, where this is likely to be an issue. And, you know, the Europeans tend to lean more toward the Palestinians on this issue, whereas the Americans, of course, lean more towards the Israelis.

HANSEN: NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome, Liane.

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