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Obama and Netanyahu, after a long meeting, insist U.S.-Israel ties are strong

The White House meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lasts more than 90 minutes longer than had been planned. 'Obviously there are some differences between us,' Obama says afterward. 'That's going to happen between friends.'

May 20, 2011|By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times
  • President Obama meets with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office at the White House on Friday. The two leaders discussed the political turmoil in the Middle East and the peace process between Israel and Palestine.
President Obama meets with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in… (Associated Press )

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday held a longer-than-expected meeting at the White House, and afterward they acknowledged their differences on Mideast peace policy but insisted that the close relationship between the countries remains sound and will continue.

Speaking to reporters, Netanyahu threw cold water on Obama's suggestion that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians should start with the pre-1967 borders, a position that Obama laid out in a speech on Thursday. Obama had also spoken in that address of supporting pro-democracy movements, economic development and human rights in the region and North Africa.

"We share your hope and vision for the spread of democracy in the Mideast," Netanyahu said, adding that "peace based on illusions will crash on Mideast reality." Israel cannot go back to the 1967 lines, Netanyahu said, calling it an "indefensible" border because it doesn't take into account the demographic changes on the ground.

Obama said the pair agreed "that there is a moment of opportunity" for peace that can be seized because of the so-called Arab spring -- the pro-democracy revolts. "But there are perils as well," Obama warned.

As to the differences between the countries on how to deal with the Palestinians, and Netanyahu's sharp disagreement with his proposals, Obama took a reassuring tone.

"Obviously there are some differences between us," Obama said. "That's going to happen between friends."

The Oval Office meeting lasted more than 90 minutes longer than expected.

The visit between the two leaders, who have a history of being publicly correct while privately disagreeing on issues, came at another tense time in U.S.-Israel relations. It also came as the U.S. presidential cycle heats up, so it was hardly surprising that Republicans generally condemned the president's comments on how to deal with the issue.

On Thursday, Obama outlined his vision of a Mideast policy, placing the issue of Israel's relations with the Palestinians in the context of the political changes sweeping through the Mideast and North Africa. The Obama administration has pushed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but efforts have been stalled and the president's envoy, George Mitchell, recently resigned.

In his speech, Obama insisted that the United States was a firm ally of Israel but called for talks to be based on the boundaries before the 1967 Six-Day War, with land swaps to be negotiated by the parties. He also called for a demilitarized Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel and for pushing back the thorny issues of who will control Jerusalem and what to do with the Palestinian refugees while boundaries and security matters are dealt with first.

In essence, Obama's approach has been U.S. policy since at least the Bill Clinton administration and has been the basis of behind-the-scene talks for years. But Obama became the first president to publicly announce the 1967 formula, which is the equivalent of touching the third rail in Israeli politics.

While boarding his plane to Washington on Thursday for the previously scheduled visit, Netanyahu dismissed the position as "indefensible," saying it would leave major Jewish settlements outside Israel. Israel's allies in the United States argued that the old borders were based on post-World War II partition decisions and no longer made any sense.

In an interview with the BBC, Obama explained his policy, saying that "the basis for negotiations will involve looking at that 1967 border, recognizing that conditions on the ground have changed and there are going to need to be swaps to accommodate the interests of both sides.

"So, our argument is, let's get started on a conversation about territory and about security. That doesn't resolve all the issues. You still end up having the problem of Jerusalem and you still end up having the problem of refugees. But if we make progress on what two states would look like, and a reality sets in among the parties that this is how it's going to end up, then it becomes easy for both sides to make difficult concessions to resolve those two other issues," he said.

Obama's comments also drew support from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal during in an interview with the Fox Business Network

"We are not talking about surrendering land. We are saying go back to the land before the war. That was the U.N. resolution. If Israel wants to be incorporated in the national community it has to accept this charter in its entirety. I cannot pick and choose. To have peace in the Arab world, to have peace in Palestine, you have to abide by the road map president Obama established today, which is fair and square," he said.

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