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Netanyahu pushes back on Obama's peace plan

In an Oval Office appearance, the Israeli leader rejects Obama's plan as the basis for Middle East peace talks.

May 21, 2011|By Paul Richter, Christi Parsons and Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington and Jerusalem — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly lectured President Obama on the shortcomings of his plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks during a tense Oval Office appearance that laid bare the strained relations between the leaders.

Admonishing a president of the United States on international television, Netanyahu rejected the plan outlined by Obama that would use the borders in effect before the 1967 Middle East War as the starting point for negotiations, saying that doing so would risk Israel's security and force it to negotiate with "a Palestinian version of Al Qaeda."

"The only peace that will endure is one based on reality, on unshakeable facts," Netanyahu said, leaning intently toward a grim Obama in the appearance that followed an unusually long, three-hour meeting Friday.

Obama acknowledged the chasm. "Obviously, there are some differences between us in the precise formulation and language, and that's going to happen between friends," he said.

The clash was rare even by the standards of frequently fractious ties between U.S. and Israeli leaders. Obama and Netanyahu sat mostly stiff and unsmiling, and addressed each other by their titles rather than first names.

In Israel, the headlines of the two largest newspapers both saw the White House exchange the same way. "Confrontation," they declared, a characterization that worries many Israelis who prefer their leaders be on good terms with American presidents.

Netanyahu was infuriated the day before by the nature of Obama's plan and over the fact that he had received little warning of it. He declared going into Friday's meeting that he hoped Obama would ease his position on the question of boundaries and other elements of the plan.

But Obama gave no indication that he was yielding ground. By the time the two spoke publicly Friday, White House officials were prepared for Netanyahu's reaction and said they were not angered by the Israeli leader's aggressive approach.

Yet aides said they felt no compulsion to have Obama provide an immediate retort. One official said Obama's proposal succeeded in placing the U.S. position on the record and may one day prove an important part of the international dialogue.

Obama has come under increasing pressure from Arab states and European governments to lay out a plan to revitalize the moribund talks, and he has wanted to show ordinary Arabs that the U.S. remains committed to peace, especially in the midst of democratic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

Tactically, Obama administration officials feared the spread of perceptions that talks have failed, which could fuel Palestinian efforts to win United Nations recognition for a sovereign state, embarrassing the U.S. and creating even thornier international problems.

The proposal to base talks on the 1967 borders has been among the informal parameters for peace talks that administration officials have considered since taking office. But Obama has not offered his own parameters before now, preferring talks between Palestinians and Israelis.

A White House official said Friday that laying out recommendations now, including the 1967 provisions, "provides a new basis for future negotiations to succeed."

By launching the U.S. proposal this week, Obama risked further damaging relations with Netanyahu that have been tense for most of the last 2 1/2 years. The days ahead bring opportunities to revisit the argument, as Obama addresses a large American pro-Israel group Sunday and Netanyahu addresses a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.

The friction dates to 2009, when Netanyahu rebuffed Obama's call for a freeze of Jewish settlement growth in the West Bank. In a meeting last year, Obama cancelled a joint news conference appearance and, at one point, left Netanyahu alone while he returned to the White House residential quarters.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. negotiator, said American and Israeli leaders have often battled but found a way to cooperate. Obama and Netanyahu "have a totally different view of things," Miller said.

"They have no collaborative relationship," he said. "So every one of their seven meetings has become a boxing match."

Republican politicians have criticized the president, but there is no indication Obama sees the tension as a political liability, either among Israelis, foreign countries or U.S. voters.

Spelling out his arguments in the Oval Office session Friday, Netanyahu said Israel could never return to the 1967 boundaries because they made Israel so geographically narrow that it would be "indefensible" under an attack.

Likewise, he argued that Israel would be at risk if it withdrew its troops from the Jordan Valley. Obama's plan calls for Israel to make a phased but ultimately complete withdrawal from the West Bank.

Netanyahu also took a harsher view of Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction that is joining the Palestinian government, than did Obama.

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