WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama defended his formulation for a Middle East peace deal before America’s biggest pro-Israel lobby Sunday, even as he made clarifications that put his comments more in line with Israeli positions.

He reiterated his statements from Thursday that a Palestinian state should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps, which had sparked outrage from many in the pro-Israel community.

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But speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday morning, he emphasized that “by definition, it means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.”

He added, to extended applause, “It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years. It allows the parties themselves to take account of those changes, including the new demographic realities on the ground.”

Most of Obama’s comments were well-received by the more than 10,000 attendees, and shortly after his speech Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a statement welcoming his remarks.

“I am a partner with the president’s desire to advance peace, and I appreciate his efforts in the past and the present to achieve this goal. I am determined together with President Obama to find ways to renew peace negotiations.

Peace is a vital interest for all of us,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

In his address, Obama explicitly referenced the need for Hamas to adhere to the Quartet principles after it recently signed an agreement with Fatah to enter into a Palestinian national unity government, whose formation he called “an enormous obstacle to peace.”

“No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction,” he said to cheers from the AIPAC activists who filled the massive convention center hall.

“We will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace, including recognizing Israel’s right to exist and rejecting violence and adhering to all existing agreements.”

Obama drew strong cheers when brought up the plight of captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, saying “and we once again call on Hamas to release Gilad Schalit, who has been kept from his family for five long years.”

Obama also pleased AIPAC backers by reaffirming US opposition to a unilateral declaration of statehood by the Palestinians at the UN.

“Peace cannot be imposed on the parties to the conflict.

No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state,” he declared. “And the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the United Nations or in any international forum.”

But Obama devoted the lengthiest portion of his 25- minute speech to the controversy caused by his comments on the 1967 lines, delivered on Thursday at the State Department in a major Middle East policy speech on the uprisings in the region.

Obama’s comments on Sunday brought him closer to the language of the letter issued by president George W. Bush in 2004 that said Israel would not be able to return to the pre-1967 lines because of security needs and developments on the ground, understood to be the main settlement blocs. Obama’s reference to “new demographic realities” also were understood by the crowd this way.

Netanyahu had demanded that Obama endorse the Bush letter after hearing his speech on Thursday, and flatly rejected any notion that Israel would return to the 1967 lines.

The Bush letter also indicated that Palestinian refugees would not be able to return to Israel, but rather to a new state of Palestine. Although Obama did not refer to the refugee issue on Sunday, he did say that “the ultimate goal is two states for two people: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the State of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state in joined self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.”

He earlier in the speech also mentioned Jews who had “longed to return to their ancient homeland.” In the past, Obama has been criticized for not drawing an explicit link to Jews’ longstanding connection to the region.

Obama received a positive reception from the crowd, which gave him extended ovations when he arrived and when he departed, and rounds of applause at several points during the speech. He also faced a handful of boos, particularly when he said that “borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” – a repetition of his comments from Thursday – though he also received a smattering of applause.

Obama acknowledged the criticism forthrightly, noting that from his speech on Thursday “it was my reference to the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps, that received the lion’s share of the attention – including just now.” But he defended his position, saying, “What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately. I’ve done so because we can’t afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades to achieve peace.”

He also noted the political fallout to such remarks, and said the response he faced didn’t come as a surprise.

“I know that stating these principles on the issues of territory and security generated some controversy over the past few days,” he said to some laughter from the audience.

“I wasn’t surprised. I know very well that the easy thing to do, particularly for a president preparing for reelection, is to avoid any controversy.”

But he said that action was necessary because “the Middle East does not allow for procrastination,” and that he also believed “real friends talk openly and honestly with one another.”

He stressed that his words were urgently needed in an international context of frustration with the stalemate in negotiations and that to have leverage with the Palestinians, Arabs and Europeans, there needed to be momentum to progress in the process. His speech on Thursday, Obama pointed out, came ahead of his trip to Europe this week in which the Middle East will feature prominently.

“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,” he said.

Herb Keinon contributed to this report.

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