'Border' Comment Defined For Israel Supporters

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Before heading to Ireland at the start of his European tour, President Obama on Sunday spoke to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest group of Israel supporters in the U.S. He reiterated his call for substantive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

President Obama is trying to re-start the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, although negotiations seem further away than ever. Yesterday, he addressed Israel's lobbying group here in Washington, D.C., concluding a week of events focused on the Middle East.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the president's address to American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

ARI SHAPIRO: Never mind peace in the Middle East, Sunday morning, there was hardly peace at the Washington Convention Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTORS CHANTING)

Unidentified Group: Free, free Palestine. Free, free Palestine.

SHAPIRO: On the sidewalk outside, people marched with signs saying Get Israel off U.S. Welfare and Stop Israeli War Crimes. Inside, thousands of people milled around listening to Hebrew pop music, waiting to hear the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in Hebrew)

SHAPIRO: Ten thousand Israel supporters came from around the country and overseas. Many packed a heavy dose of skepticism, including Avi Eliani from Los Angeles.

AVI ELIANI: I don't think this is something you can take back after what he said, and I don't think this audience is very thrilled about what he said either.

SHAPIRO: What the president said last Thursday, was this.

BARACK OBAMA: We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed upon swaps.

SHAPIRO: That ten second line in a 45 minute presidential speech has driven a wedge between two staunch allies, the U.S. and Israel. The day after the speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat in the oval office and called President Obama's proposal indefensible. Then he delivered a sharp history lesson in front of the rolling cameras.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Remember that, before 1967 Israel, was all of nine miles wide, half the width of the Washington Beltway. And these were not the boundaries of peace, they were the boundaries of repeated wars, because the attack on Israel was so attractive from them.

SHAPIRO: So inside the Washington Beltway, Israel's supporters came to hear what the president had to say. He took the stage to a standing ovation, affirmed his support for Israel, and then tried to downplay the controversy.

OBAMA: There was nothing particularly original in my proposal. This basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations.

SHAPIRO: He said his position on 1967 borders with land swaps was misrepresented.

OBAMA: 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.

SHAPIRO: This is an international issue, and it also has domestic political significance, as President Obama acknowledged.

OBAMA: I know very well, that the easy thing to do, particularly for a president preparing for reelection, is to avoid any controversy.

SHAPIRO: President Obama won nearly 80 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. He doesn't want that number to drop in 2012. But after the speech, most conference-goers I spoke with said the President failed to explain away the controversy. Randall Levitt of Rockville, Maryland was one of them.

RANDALL LEVITT: I think that his language in the speech that he gave last week, was deliberate and that he knew precisely that it would create conflict and I'm - even after listening today - completely mystified about why he chose to do that.

SHAPIRO: Still, the President made some converts. Renee Naydell came to the conference from New York.

RENEE NAYDELL: I was upset about the speech, but I think he clarified it, I think he did a very good job.

SHAPRIRO: And so whatever concerns you had are pretty much taken care of because of this speech?

NAYDELL: I feel much better about it.

SHAPIRO: The president is in Ireland today. As he told the audience yesterday, the Middle East will be a topic of acute interest on this five-day European trip. But those audiences will likely be less sympathetic to the Israeli cause than the crowd at AIPAC was.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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