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Obama stresses urgency before pro-Israel group

International impatience is growing to revive the Middle East peace process, the president says.

May 23, 2011|Peter Nicholas and Edmund Sanders

WASHINGTON AND JERUSALEM — President Obama reassured a powerful pro-Israel group that America's support for the Jewish state's security is "ironclad" but insisted on a sense of urgency about reviving peace talks that he said would require both Israelis and Palestinians to make "hard choices."

"The current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination," Obama said, noting that he had expressed that impatience to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in their private meeting Friday.

Obama's comment was one of several that seemed designed to push Israel's leaders outside their comfort zone, even at the risk of creating tension in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Taken together with Obama's lengthy address on Middle East policy Thursday, the remarks on Sunday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee appeared to show a renewed confidence on the president's part about his ability to push an ambitious agenda in the region.

"There is an impatience with the peace process, or the absence of one, not just in the Arab world -- in Latin America, in Asia and in Europe," Obama said. "That impatience is growing, and it's already manifesting itself in capitals around the world."

Netanyahu publicly lectured Obama after their meeting. He objected to the president's formula that negotiations should have as their starting point Israel's borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, modified by negotiated swaps of land between the two sides. Netanyahu, in his comments, had said the 1967 borders were "indefensible" and had ignored Obama's inclusion of land swaps as part of the formula.

Administration officials have been open in expressing their irritation at the prime minister's words. And Obama made clear that he believed his position had been mischaracterized.

"Since questions have been raised, let me repeat what I actually said on Thursday -- not what I was reported to have said," he said.

He asserted that he does not want Israel pared back to the state that existed before the 1967 war. Israel must be able to "defend itself -- by itself -- against any threat," he said. In the end, the Middle East map will look different "than the one that existed on June 4, 1967," the day before the war began, he said.

"That's what mutually agreed-upon swaps mean," Obama added. "It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years."

His words appeared to have reassured many in the audience, who applauded repeatedly -- suggesting that Obama will pay little, if any, domestic political price for the quarrel with Netanyahu.

Afterward, AIPAC issued a statement saying, "We appreciate his statement that the U.S. does not expect Israel to withdraw to the boundaries that existed between Israel and Jordan in 1967 before the Six-Day War."

Netanyahu sounded a cooperative note as well. In a statement, he said he appreciated Obama's "past and present efforts" and would work with him "to find ways to resume the peace negotiations." The prime minister is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on Monday.

But, given the zero-sum nature of Middle Eastern politics, Obama's emphasis on the land-swap component drew objections from the Palestinian side.

"We were happier three days ago, before hearing his explanation," said Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official, in an interview. "He simply dismissed today any chance of going back to 1967 borders."

After Thursday's speech, Palestinian leaders -- who for years have been calling for peace talks based on 1967 borders with swaps -- expressed cautious optimism. Saeb Erekat, the former chief Palestinian negotiator, even hinted that if Netanyahu embraced Obama's framework, Palestinians might return to the negotiating table. "If Netanyahu agrees, we shall turn over a new leaf," Erekat told Israeli news site Ynet on Sunday morning.

But after Obama's address, Shaath said Obama focused too heavily on preserving Israel's security needs and respecting Israeli desire to maintain West Bank settlements, while saying nothing about Palestinian hot-button issues, such as having East Jerusalem as a capital and the right of return for refugees. Obama's address Sunday was silent on those issues.

A White House senior advisor gave some insight into why the president chose this moment to lay out a specific formulation for a peace accord.

The aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue, said talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have stalled in part because "there was no clear foundation for them."

"The principles [Obama] described on security and territory can provide a strong foundation for when talks do start," the aide said.

What's more, Obama's asserted position has the potential to head off a planned Palestinian attempt to gain statehood unilaterally through a direct appeal to the United Nations, the aide said.

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