Netanyahu and Obama long way apart over peace plans
Barack Obama failed to resolve the rift with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over the Middle East peace process after lengthy talks at the White House, with both leaders publicly acknowledging differences over the 1967 border and other outstanding issues.
Netanyahu rejected outright Obama’s public backing in a speech on Thursday for an Israeli-Palestinian deal based on the border that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The Israeli leader told Obama he was prepared to make concessions but not over the 1967 border. Israel’s security needs required a border that stretched beyond the 1967 one across the length of the West Bank to Jordan, he said.
“Remember that, before 1967, Israel was all of nine miles wide. It was half the width of the Washington Beltway. And these were not the boundaries of peace; they were the boundaries of repeated wars, because the attack on Israel was so attractive,” Netanyahu said. “So we can’t go back to those indefensible lines and we’re going to have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan.”
The talks, originally scheduled to last 50 minutes, overran by 90 minutes.
The pair tend to be polite and diplomatic in public while keeping their disagreements private but, on this occasion, they acknowledged the divisions. Their body language, with Netanyahu unsmiling and appearing tense, did not suggest the meeting had been cordial.
“Obviously there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language,” Obama said, adding diplomatically: “That’s going to happen between friends.”
The meeting in the Oval Office came the day after Obama became the first US president to endorse explicitly and in public the Palestinian demand for a state based on the border before Israel’s occupation in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. This would be the starting point for negotiating a series of land swaps.
The row is odd, given that it has long been US policy to recognise the 1967 border and the only difference is that Obama has voiced this support so publicly.
The White House had been debating whether to include the reference to 1967 in the speech, with some saying it was an inopportune moment given the upheaval in the Middle East, and suggesting waiting until later in the year. But those arguing to do it now prevailed.
Netanyahu was only told of the contentious passage in the speech a few hours before Obama delivered it, in a testy phone conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He attempted to have it cut out but the US refused.
Flying to Washington on Thursday night, his anger was evident when he told reporters: “There are things that can’t be swept under the carpet.”
The White House was unable to point to a single sign of progress during the talks on any issue between Obama and Netanyahu.
The Israeli prime minister, like Obama, acknowledged: “We may have differences here and there.”
As well as digging in over the 1967 border, Netanyahu said Israel could not negotiate with the Palestinian unity government that includes “the terrorist group” Hamas. “[Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas] has to decide if he negotiates or keeps his pact with Hamas, or makes peace with Israel,” Netanyahu said.
Obama agreed that Hamas was “not a partner for a significant, realistic peace process”.Netanyahu flagged up a third problem, the refugees of Palestinians demanding a right of return for themselves and their children. “So it’s not going to happen. Everybody knows it’s not going to happen,” he said.
Washington has become increasingly frustrated at the failure of the Israelis and Palestinians to enter into serious negotiations. Obama came into power promising to try to resolve the conflict but has failed to make any headway. The lack of progress prompted the resignation last week of the US special envoy George Mitchell, who had become so disenchanted that he had not visited the region since December. The rift offers the prospect of a series of highly-charged events over the next few days. Obama could have a difficult time when he speaks on Sunday to about 6 000 people expected to attend the annual conference in Washington of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful Jewish lobbying organisation. Officials, without naming the president, have urged participants to treat all speakers with respect.Netanyahu is due to speak at AIPAC on Monday and address Congress on Tuesday.
White House national security spokesperson, Ben Rhodes, said Obama would discuss the Israeli-Palestinian issue with David Cameron in London next week.
He said the two were set to discuss the point that the “foundation for successful negotiations should begin with territorial security to include the 1967 borders plus swaps as a basis on territory, and to include affirmation and assurances related to Israel’s security”.
Meanwhile the construction of about 1 500 new housing units in East Jerusalem settlements was approved by an Israeli government committee on Thursday, and permits for a further 300-plus units in West Bank settlements were approved by the defence minister, Ehud Barak. - guardian.co.uk