Analysis: Obama's land swap surprise

Perhaps the most stunning element of Netanyahu’s Washington trip is the degree to which he was surprised by Obama.

Obama, Netanyahu meeting in Washington GALLERY 465 (R) 5 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO)
Obama, Netanyahu meeting in Washington GALLERY 465 (R) 5
(photo credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO)
WASHINGTON – Perhaps the most stunning element of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Washington trip is the degree to which he was surprised – again – by US President Barack Obama.
For all the clarification Obama made during his Sunday speech to AIPAC of what he really meant by saying last Thursday that Israel should withdraw to the 1967 lines with mutually agreed-upon land swaps, in the final analysis Netanyahu didn’t see this coming. He was taken completely by surprise – something that accounts both for his furious phone call with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just before Obama delivered the Thursday speech, and for his harsh response to the speech, which set a nasty tone for the visit before it even got underway.
Our World: Obama's diversionary tactics
Barak: Obama's speech lets us leave our differences behind
In a sense, this is diplomatic deja vu. Back in May 2009, during Netanyahu’s first White House meeting with Obama, the president sprang a surprise with his call for an end to settlement construction.
Like the events of the past week, Netanyahu did not see the settlement freeze demand coming. His aides, in prior meetings with administration officials, were not given notice that this was the direction where Obama was headed. It was a major break with previous administration positions and it cast a heavy cloud over Jerusalem’s ties with Washington for months.
The same pattern now repeated itself. For whatever reason – perhaps because there were intense debates among Obama’s advisors regarding what to say about Israel in the Middle East speech – the message picked up both by Israeli officials and US Jewish leaders was that there would be no new ground broken, and that Israel had, as one official said a day before the speech, “nothing to worry about.”
Indeed, 24 hours before Obama’s Thursday address, the Prime Minister’s Office said it was unlikely to issue a response to the speech because a day later Netanyahu would meet with the president and tell him in private what he thought.
But again Obama opted for surprise. Unlike May 2009, however, at which time Netanyahu did not respond directly to the settlement freeze demand in the press conference that followed his first meeting with Obama, this time he changed tactics and in an exceptional delivery of statements during an Oval Office photo-op on Friday told Obama that this simply would not work.
Beyond the whole debate of what Obama truly means when he says “1967 lines with land swaps,” the concern in the Prime Minister’s Office was that if left unchallenged, the impression would be that US policy now called on Israel to return to those lines. It was in order to alter this perception that the prime minister challenged Obama so publicly. And, indeed, Obama clarified his statement, seeming to roll it back a bit.
A bit, but not completely.
What is currently irking Netanyahu, beyond the president’s failure to say specifically that the descendants of Palestinian refugees would need to be absorbed in a future Palestinian state rather than in Israel, is the idea of land swaps that appeared in both of Obama’s speeches.
Mutually agreed-upon swaps, Obama said, mean the negotiation of a border that is different from the one that existed before June 4, 1967. But it also presupposes that Israel will have to trade land inside pre-1967 Israel for land retained beyond the Green Line – a principle Netanyahu is opposed to.
This idea was part of the proposal that then-prime minister Ehud Olmert put on the table in his talks with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, although at the time it was part of an overall package that included agreements on Jerusalem and the refugees – a package the Palestinians did not accept.
Netanyahu has never endorsed publicly or privately the idea of land swaps – and it was one of the things that left him unpleasantly surprised on Thursday. Despite Obama’s subsequent clarifications, it will remain an irritant between Jerusalem and Washington in the near future.