WASHINGTON - The seventh meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday ended with a televised confrontation that showed the entire world the depth of the disagreement between the two leaders on the Palestinian question.
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Senior officials in both the U.S. administration and the prime minister's delegation expressed a sense of great tension and profound mutual insult following the meeting.
Obama is scheduled to speak today at the AIPAC conference in Washington, where he is expected to try to stave off further deterioration in U.S.-Israeli relations.
A few hours after the tense meeting with Obama, Netanyahu and his aides held a Shabbat dinner at the official state guest house, the Blair House. Netanyahu told his advisers that he foresees difficult times ahead as well as the possibility of future confrontations and disagreements with the United States, "but that the truth must be told."
A clash between the prime minister and Obama seemed imminent when Netanyahu arrived at the White House on Friday, a day after the U.S. president said in a major address that the basis for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority should be the 1967 borders with land swaps.
Rumors about the content of the speech reached Netanyahu as early as Wednesday, Haaretz has learned, and he immediately instructed the embassy in Washington to find out whether the 1967 borders would be mentioned explicitly. A few hours before the speech, Netanyahu received a phone call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, confirming that this was the case. Netanyahu protested, but Clinton told him it was the president's decision and nothing could be changed.
Netanyahu was infuriated and felt he had been ambushed, a source close to the prime minister told Haaretz. "He felt under attack," the source said. "It was a real insult, especially coming from such a close ally." The reason Netanyahu was so outraged was that he felt there should have been prior coordination on an issue Israel sees as so extremely sensitive. As far as Netanyahu was concerned, the Americans presented a position on Israel's borders without even consulting with him about what he thought.
The White House also felt insulted. On the morning of the meeting with Netanyahu, the New York Times reported that Obama had told his advisers he does not believe Netanyahu will ever compromise for peace. Netanyahu's sharp response to Obama's speech left the administration feeling that the prime minister was trying to create a negative spin on the speech despite the fact it contained many elements that were favorable to Israel.
Sources in the prime minister's entourage told Haaretz that the 90-minute-long conversation between the two leaders was even "harsher and franker" than the public confrontation that followed. Netanyahu told his associates that he had expressed his opposition to the 1967 line in order to prevent it from becoming the official U.S. position, especially considering that all of Obama's predecessors had refrained from voicing such support.
The prime minister left the meeting more satisfied than he went in. One reason was that Obama had promised to further strengthen the Israeli army in light of the recent turmoil in the Arab world and had reiterated that all security understandings between the United States and Israel were still valid.
Following the meeting and a prolonged consultation with their respective aides, the two leaders went out to the media and tried to play down the crisis, describing it as a confrontation between friends. Obama began by praising the warm relationship between Israel and the United States, noting that "the frequency of these meetings is an indication of the extraordinary bonds between our two countries," and that Netanyahu's speech to the Congress, an event the administration awaits with unease, is "an honor that's reserved for those who have always shown themselves to be a great friend of the United States."
He went on to stress that true peace can only happen if the final agreement allows Israel to defend itself. In this context, he posed tough questions to the Palestinians regarding the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, in particular Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel.
Netanyahu started out in a conciliatory tone but quickly launched into a passionate speech against the U.S. administration's policy on the Palestinian issue. "I think for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities," he said. "The first is that while Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines - because these lines are indefensible."
The prime minister then offered Obama a historic overview of 4,000 years of Jewish history. "And now it falls on my shoulders as the prime minister of Israel, at a time of extraordinary instability and uncertainty in the Middle East, to work with you to fashion a peace that will ensure Israel's security and will not jeopardize its survival," he said.
The president is scheduled to address 10,000 participants at the annual AIPAC conference today. He is expected to reiterate the importance he attaches to ties with Israel and to try and reverse the negative impressions created after his meeting with Netanyahu on Friday. Republican and several Democrat leaders have already condemned Obama for his remarks on the 1967 borders.
Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat from Florida, said that "Israel cannot be expected to make any territorial concessions that do not acknowledge the reality on the ground. The 1967 borders are indefensible." Independent Senator Joe Lieberman said that Obama's remark were "unhelpful and surprising," while Republican majority leader Eric Cantor said over the weekend that Obama's approach was damaging to the special relationship with Israel and was weakening the ability of an ally to defend itself.