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
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Obama’s sour notes in Israel are music to Europeans
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.”
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
He also noted the political fallout to such remarks, and said the response he faced didn’t come as a surprise.
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
“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.