WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
acknowledged the differences that divide them even as they emphasized areas of
agreement on the peace process, Iran and democratic changes in the Middle East,
following their White House meeting Friday.
Netanyahu flatly rejected any
return to the 1967 lines, the basis – along with agreed land swaps – for a deal
with the Palestinians as laid out in a speech by Obama Thursday.
formulation referencing 1967 has been criticized by Israeli officials and
advocates, and created greater tension as the two leaders, long perceived to be
at odds, headed into their meeting. The private parley lasted over two hours,
longer than they were scheduled to spend one-on-one, as the men discussed a
range of sensitive issues at a time of rapid change in the Middle
“While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace,
it cannot go back to the 1967 lines,” Netanyahu said, sitting alongside Obama in
the Oval Office.
“These lines are indefensible because they don’t take
into account certain changes that have taken place on the ground, demographic
Following the meeting, a senior Israeli source said of Obama’s
formula: “It’s not going to happen.”
A senior White House adviser,
however, stressed in background conversations Friday that the US had not
intended to imply that Israel would have to go back to the 1967 lines, but
rather that they would be adjusted to take into account security needs and new
facts on the ground as part of negotiations.
In his statement at the Oval
Office, Netanyahu also ruled out any return of Palestinian refugees to Israel
proper or that Israel would negotiate with Hamas, branded a terrorist
organization by both the US and Israel.
Obama echoed Netanyahu’s last
point, using stronger language to dismiss the prospectof Israel talking to Hamas than even a day earlier in his own Middle East
“It is not a partner for a significant, realistic peace
process,” Obama stated Friday. “The Palestinians are going to have to explain
how they can credibly engage in serious peace negotiations.”
did not accede publicly to Netanyahu’s demand, made in a statement following
Thursday’s speech, that he endorse a letter written by former US president
George W. Bush that included an American rejection of Palestinian refugees
settling in the Jewish state and acknowledged more clearly that Israel’s final
borders would include settlements, the demographic changes on the ground alluded
to by the prime minister.
However, in a rare reference to the letter by
an Obama administration official, White House spokesman Jay Carney said after
the meeting that the policy on the 1967 lines outlined by Obama was in keeping
with that missive.
“There is nothing that the president said yesterday
that contradicts the 2004 letters that were exchanged between President Bush and
Prime Minister Sharon, or what Prime Minister Netanyahu said today in the Oval
Office,” Carney said at his daily press briefing. He also rejected the notion
that Obama had “moved in any direction” away from the principles of the letter,
though he avoided endorsing the letter when asked explicitly to affirm some of
Netanyahu seemed to push Obama to speak out on the refugee
issue after the president in his speech the day before underscored the need to
“tell the truth” on sensitive Middle East issues.
“It’s not going to
Everybody knows it’s not going to happen,” Netanyahu said of
Palestinian refugees being absorbed by Israel.
“And I think it’s time to
tell the Palestinians forthrightly that it’s not going to happen.”
also pointedly said that “a peace based on illusions will crash eventually on
the rocks of Middle Eastern reality.”
A senior Israeli source later
described the meeting as “open, candid and friendly,” not least because of
Netanyahu’s unvarnished elaboration on his views of the peace
Both leaders acknowledged that they didn’t see eye-to-eye on
every issue, referring to “differences” on details as they sought to emphasize
their larger shared interest in pursuing peace.
“We may have differences
here and there, but I think there’s an overall direction that we wish to work
together to pursue a real, genuine peace between Israel and its Palestinian
neighbors, and peace that is defensible,” Netanyahu said.
referring to their “prolonged and extremely useful” conversation, said,
“Obviously there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and
language, and that’s going to happen between friends.”
In a nod to
Netanyahu’s focus on Israel’s strategic concerns, the president added, “What we
are in complete accord about is that a true peace can only occur if the ultimate
resolution allows Israel to defend itself against threats.”
Israeli source said that Netanyahu came out of the meeting with Obama more
encouraged than when he went in, though he wouldn’t elaborate as to why that was
He said the prime minister made clear that it was dangerous to
have “unrealistic expectations,” and that raising Palestinian hopes of a full
Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, or the possibility that Israel would allow
descendents of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, did just
Netanyahu, according to the source, felt the need to put Israel’s
position on these matters – as well as its adamant refusal to negotiate with a
PA that includes Hamas – out there publicly and as clearly as
This was particularly important in terms of impacting the
international debate, he explained.
In his public comments, Obama
referred to other dangers facing Israel, and the US’s intention to stand against
them, particularly in Iran.
He railed against the “the hypocrisy of Iran
suggesting that it somehow supports democratization in the Middle East,” and
reiterated that “it is unacceptable for Iran to possess a nuclear
He also noted that in Friday’s discussions, he had spelled out
further steps the White House is taking to pressure Syria.
At the same
time, Obama noted that he sees the Arab revolutions taking place as an
opportunity for positive changes in the region, albeit ones that will require
vigilance and close coordination with Israel.
“We agreed that there is a
moment of opportunity that can be seized as a consequence of the Arab Spring,
but also acknowledge that there’s significant perils as well,” he
Netanyahu made his own reference to recent developments in the
Middle East when he spoke of Hamas’s criticism of the US killing of al-Qaida
leader Osama bin Laden.
“Hamas has just attacked you, Mr. President, and
the United States for ridding the world of bin Laden,” he said. “So Israel
obviously cannot be asked to negotiate with a government that is backed by the
Palestinian version of al-Qaida.”
The meeting came ahead of Obama’s own
address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday. Previewing a
message he is certain to repeat there, he stressed Friday that “the
extraordinarily close relationship between the United States and Israel is sound
and will continue.”
Netanyahu originally planned to come to Washington to
speak at the AIPAC conference, and was later invited to the White House as well
to address a joint session of Congress Tuesday.
Netanyahu concluded his
remarks Friday by noting the burden he has to protect the Jewish people, who
have so often been buffeted by history.
“You’re the leader of a great
people, the American people,” he told the US president. “And I’m the leader of a
much smaller people.”
Obama interrupted him to add, “a great
Netanyahu agreed with Obama’s assessment – “it’s a great people,
too” – but then warned: “We don’t have a lot of margin for error… History will
not give the Jewish people another chance.”