WASHINGTON - U.S. President Barack Obama defended his endorsement of Israel's 1967 boundaries as the basis for a future Palestinian state yesterday, telling America's pro-Israel AIPAC lobby that his views reflected long-standing U.S. policy that needed to be stated clearly. He also said the Jewish state will face growing isolation without a credible peace process.
"Even while we may at times disagree, as friends sometimes will, the bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable, and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad," Obama said to loud applause.
Obama tried to alleviate concerns that his administration was veering in a pro-Palestinian direction, placing his Mideast policy speech Thursday in the context of Israel's security. He told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that the 1967 borders must be subject to negotiated land swaps and that these principles reflected U.S. thinking dating back to President Bill Clinton's mediation efforts.
If there's a controversy, then it is not based on substance, Obama told the audience. "What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately. I have done so because we cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace."
The event was eagerly anticipated after Obama outlined his vision for the changing Middle East at the State Department on Thursday and then clashed in a White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a day later. Netanyahu said in a statement after the most recent Obama remarks that he supported the president's desire to advance peace and resolved to work with him to find ways to renew the negotiations. "Peace is a vital need for us all," Netanyahu said.
The Israeli leader's tone was far more reserved than last week, when he issued an impassioned rejection of the 1967 borders as indefensible. Netanyahu is to address the pro-Israel lobby Monday night and Congress on Tuesday.
Following the Obama-Netanyahu meeting on Friday, it took the prime minister and his advisers 24 hours to grasp that the way the meeting concluded and the headlines that came out of it presented a major problem for Israel. Yesterday Netanyahu granted short interviewed to news agencies in an effort to calm the flames, underlining that there is no crisis in relations.
Nonetheless, American officials have also been miffed by what they see as Netanyahu's use of Obama's State Department speech last Thursday for internal Israeli domestic purposes. They said the private meeting between Netanyahu and the U.S. president went relatively well and Netanyahu's candid remarks in the news conference that followed were hurtful to the president. One U.S. official said the Israeli prime minister's conduct raises a question mark as to whether he would support the United States when the need arises for Israel's support.
Israeli officials said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's view of Netanyahu ranges between abhorrence and hatred. Netanyahu and his staff insist, however, that there is no crisis, saying the Israeli prime minister is encouraged and feels that the U.S. and Israeli positions have also come closer together.
Obama didn't retreat from his remarks last week on what it would take to reach a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Repeating a large section of his Thursday speech, he said the result must come through negotiations and that Israeli border security and protections from acts of terrorism must be ensured. An Israeli withdrawal from territory should be followed by Palestinians taking responsibility for security in a nonmilitarized state.
Obama flatly opposed a Palestinian drive to win UN recognition for an independent state, even without a peace deal with Israel. He did note increased international impatience with what he termed the absence of a peace process. Arab, Latin American, European and Asian countries may be inclined to back the Palestinian bid. "The march to isolate Israel internationally - and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations - will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative. And for us to have leverage with the Palestinians, to have leverage with the Arab States and with the international community, the basis for negotiations has to hold out the prospect of success," Obama said.
Efforts by the AIPAC conference organizers to underline the alliance between Israel and the United States only raised questions about those ties, particularly regarding the personal tension and lack of trust between Obama and Netanyahu. It had never been so hard for Israeli diplomats and friends of Israel in Washington to explain the importance of Israel to the United States.
Several weeks ago Foreign Policy magazine published an article by Israel's U.S.-born ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, about the depth of security and economic cooperation between the two countries as well as their shared values, but the article also projected a sense that relations between the countries had run into difficulty if they were not already in crisis.