Obama, Netanyahu at odds before crucial talks

Obama, Netanyahu at odds before crucial talks

US does not understand the reality, says senior Israeli official

In a speech on Thursday on US policy in the Mideast, Obama for the first time endorsed the Palestinians’ demand that their eventual state be based on borders that existed before the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel forces occupied east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

From Jerusalem, Netanyahu dismissed the position as “indefensible”, saying it would leave major Jewish settlements outside Israel. Then he boarded a plane for his long-scheduled visit to Washington, vowing to seek clarifications in his meeting with Obama at the White House. He arrived in Washington early Friday.

The encounter will pit a president deeply frustrated with a peace effort in shambles against an Israeli leader confronted by a Palestinian government he says he cannot do business with.

International pressure is growing on both to answer the demands of the Palestinian people as the revolts sweeping the Arab world crest against Israel itself. Palestinian protesters emboldened by the winds of change marched on the Jewish state’s borders this week and at least 15 people were killed.

Against that backdrop, Obama is aiming “to try to convince Netanyahu and the Israelis that there’s a greater urgency in reaching agreement with the Palestinians because of the dramatic changes under way in the region and greater diplomatic pressures and efforts to isolate Israel and delegitimise its existence,” said Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“So he was speaking to both the Israelis and the Palestinians and trying to urge them to move forward and conveying a sense of urgency and risk in the status quo,” Malka said.

Netanyahu’s tough response to Obama’s speech “expresses disappointment at the absence of central items that Israel had demanded, primarily the (Palestinian) refugees,” a senior Israeli official told reporters travelling with the prime minister.

The official said Netanyahu was disappointed the speech did not address the Palestinian demand to repatriate to Israel millions of Palestinians, most descendants of people who were driven from or fled homes in the war over the Jewish state’s 1948 creation.

“There is a feeling that Washington does not understand the reality, Washington does not understand what we face,” the official said. Obama’s stance on the 1967 borders was not a major policy change, since the US—along with the international community and even past Israeli governments—previously endorsed an agreement building on the 1967 lines.

But it was the first time he'd explicitly endorsed those borders as a starting point, a position Netanyahu rejects. Obama said Israel can never be a truly peaceful Jewish state if it insists on “permanent occupation."

But he did say the 1967 borders should be accompanied by land swaps agreed to by both sides, which could accommodate existing Jewish settlements.