Published May 22, 2011
WASHINGTON -- Claiming his remarks earlier this week on borders for Israel and a future Palestinian state had been misrepresented, President Obama said Sunday that "1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps" means the two sides will "negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967."
In remarks Sunday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the president tried to explain his earlier position to a warm but occasionally tentative crowd by saying that his speech Thursday at the State Department didn't offer anything new or provocative in the way of peace negotiations.
"There was nothing particularly original in my proposal; this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations," he said
"What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately," he added, saying his remarks were no different than a "well-known formula" that has been worked on for a generation.
"It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides. The ultimate goal is two states for two peoples. 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 enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace," he said.
Since Thursday, tensions between the U.S. and Israel have been sharper than ever. The remarks -- in which the president said he wants Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate a land deal that starts with the 1967 borders -- received considerable criticism, including a public dressing down by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"It's not going to happen," Netanyahu said Friday. "Everybody knows it's not going to happen."
But on Saturday, Netanyahu, who will address the pro-Israel lobby on Monday and Congress on Tuesday, played down any rift.
"The disagreements have been blown way out of proportion," he told The Associated Press on Saturday. "It's true we have some differences of opinion, but these are among friends."
Obama received a strong welcome at the conference, earning a standing ovation when he arrived and when he finished his remarks. He also earned considerable applause for several other pledges, including when he said the U.S.-Israel bond is unshakeable.
"Even while we may sometimes disagree, as friends sometime will, the bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable, and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad.
"We have a strong commitment to its survival as a secure homeland for the Jewish people," he added.
Obama named several areas where the U.S. and Israel agree, including preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, developing weapons system to give Israel a military edge and vetoing U.N. resolutions designed to undermine the isolated nation's security.
"No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state. And the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the U.N. or in any international forum," he said.
"The core issues can only be negotiated in direct talks between the parties," he said.
But the room was considerably quieter when he began to address the comments he made a few days ago, and the president acknowledged that "some of you will disagree with this assessment."
The president's remarks last Thursday stunned many in the foreign relations community who saw them as a distinct shift in U.S. policy toward backing the Palestinian position in the Mideast peace process.
Talks Friday with Netanyahu were chilly, and Israel supporters slammed the president for calling for borders that would jeopardize Israel's very existence.
"I think the president made a mistake, and he's been sort of trying to backtrack since then, as well he should," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told "Fox News Sunday" before the president spoke.
Noting that it's not up to the U.S. to decide what's best for Israel, McConnell added, "The maxim that the parties to the conflict need to be the parties to the settlement still holds."
After Sunday's speech AIPAC issued a statement thanking the president for his clarification.
"AIPAC appreciates President Obama's speech today at our annual policy conference in which he reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and the shared values that define both nations. In particular, we appreciate his statement that the U.S. does not expect Israel to withdraw to the boundaries that existed between Israel and Jordan in 1967 before the Six Day War," the statement reads.
The nation of Israel, created in 1948, expanded in 1967 after it was collectively attacked by its three Arab neighbors, Syria, Egypt and Jordan. Israel repelled the attack in six days and captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. It has since abandoned Gaza, which is now run by Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group.
Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel in its charter, has recently formed a unity government with Fatah, the Palestinian party that operates Palestinian territories in the West Bank.
That in itself has stalled the peace process, which has been stuck over the central questions of what the borders of a future Palestinian state will be, whether to divide Jerusalem to give East Jerusalem as a capital for the Palestinians and whether to allow millions of Palestinians who left the country to return to Israeli land.
The president said no country should be expected to recognize a government that calls for its destruction, and he called on Hamas to "accept the basic responsibilities of peace, including recognizing Israel's right to exist, rejecting violence and adhering to all existing agreements."
But Marc Thiessen, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, said Obama's exclusion of the latter two issues while calling for narrowing Israel's borders puts Israel in a precarious position.
"By leaving that out while calling for the 1967 borders, he essentially tried to take away the Israelis negotiating card while leaving the Palestinians theirs," he said. "If 7 million Palestinians return to Israel, it will end Israel as we know it."