WAashington – U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held an extended meeting Friday amid controversy over Obama's call for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians based on the borders that existed before Israel's victory in the 1967 war which saw it occupy the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
But the meeting produced scant progress in bridging the differences between the two leaders on how to restart the moribund Middle East peace process.
Obama, who has been facing intense criticism domestically for the “'67 borders” framework, downplayed the differences between the two leaders.
“Obviously, there are some differences between us regarding formulations and language and that is going to happen between friends,” he said. “But we are in complete accord that true peace can only occur if the ultimate resolution allows Israel to defend itself against threats and that Israeli security will remain paramount in any prospective peace deals.”
But Netanyahu was less conciliatory, emphasising his displeasure with Obama's plan to base negotiations on the 1967 borders.
“While Israel will make generous compromises, it cannot go back to 1967 lines, because they are indefensible and because they do not take into account demographic changes on the ground,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu also made firm statements regarding Palestinian refugees and the recent agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, to form a new, unity government.
On refugees, Netanyahu asserted that “[Refugees returning to what is now Israel is] not going to happen and I think it's time to tell the Palestinians that it's not going to be resolved that way.”
Netanyahu was just as adamant regarding Hamas.
“Israel cannot negotiate with a Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas. Israel cannot be asked to talk to a Palestinian government backed by the Palestinian version of al-Qaeda. Abbas must choose between a pact with Hamas and peace with Israel,” he said.
This contrasted with Obama's attempt to leave an opening to deal with a unified Palestinian government, even while making it clear that he does not see Hamas as a viable participant in negotiations.
“The Palestinians must answer difficult questions about their unity agreement. Hamas is and has been an organisation that has resorted to terrorism, that has refused to recognise Israel's right to exist,” Obama said.”It is not a partner for a realistic peace process. The Palestinians must explain how they can credibly engage in serious peace negotiations.”
Nabil Sha'ath, a senior Palestinian Liberation Organization official, said that Netanyahu's statements Friday effectively closed off any possibility for peace between his people and Israel and that his stances are much more threatening to chances for peace than the question of Hamas' involvement.
“Netanyahu in effect wiped out all possible bases for any peace process,” Sha'ath said. “In this day and age of rockets and communication, I don't know whether any borders are defensible. But he explained when he spoke of demographic changes. This referred to [Israeli] settlements which expand to this day.
“He sees the dreams of Palestinian refugees as ridiculous and dismisses Palestinian claims to Jerusalem. So, the question of Hamas is miniscule compared to the picture Netanyahu presents, to which the president of the United States just says 'we have some differences.'”
Despite the Palestinian concern, and despite the fact that President Obama has clarified that his call was for the 1967 borders to be the basis of negations which would include exchanges of land to provide both Israel and a future Palestinian state with defensible borders, Obama has faced mounting criticism that his speech was unfair to Israel.
“The president has lurched to the Palestinian side on a key negotiating point,” Senator Mark Kirk told FOX News. He went on to tie Obama's statement to the issue of dealing with Hamas. “For the rest of us, Congress is worried, should we continue to provide over 200 million dollars in taxpayer assistance to the Palestinian Authority now that it is formally allied with a terrorist organisation?”
Even friendly voices in Congress are signaling displeasure with Obama on this issue.
“A two-state solution agreed upon by the Israelis and Palestinians should be negotiated through direct talks, but it is important to remember that a full return to the 1967 borders will be indefensible for Israel and that talking with terrorists who want to destroy Israel is a non-starter,” said Representative Steve Rothman, a staunch Obama supporter.
Some experts, however, believe the entire issue of the 1967 borders is not genuine.
“Netanyahu's claim to be shocked by the idea of negotiations based on '67 borders with land swaps is disingenuous,” Cecilie Surasky, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, told IPS. “In fact, this has been the basis of negotiations for years. What he's really opposed to is a meaningful peace process which would bring an end to ongoing settlement expansion and mark the creation of a viable Palestinian state.”
“Providing clarity on the 1967 lines hardly falls into the category of eyebrow-raising breakthroughs,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli diplomat. “But in the world of … analysis of presidential texts on Israel-Palestine, Obama's speech did offer something new. Using the 1967 lines as the clear reference point takes Netanyahu out of his comfort zone.”
Peter Joseph, president of the Israel Policy Forum, said, “President Obama's statement that 'the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,' is a clear articulation of the United States' understanding of the basis for border negotiations. This is the same basis upon which official and unofficial negotiations between the parties have been conducted for years.”