JERUSALEM – In laying out some of the parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, President Barack Obama is presenting the Israeli and Palestinian leaders with tricky and fateful choices.
Obama said the basis for border talks between the two must be Israel's frontier before it captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast War.
It's something Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been waiting to hear from Obama for more than two years. Abbas must now decide whether these assurances are enough for him to drop plans to ask the U.N. General Assembly in September to recognize a Palestinian state in the territories occupied in 1967, and instead return to negotiations with Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must decide as well if he can live with the Obama parameters. Since Obama added the notion of land swaps, it is possible Netanyahu could sell such a pliable idea to his center-right coalition, if the alternative is engaging in a major confrontation with Israel's most important ally.
There is another big hurdle en route to the resumption of peace talks that Obama clearly wants — Abbas' reconciliation with his bitter rival, Hamas. Considered a terror group by the U.S. and Israel, the Islamic militant group has given no indication that it is willing to moderate as it joins a possible unity government with Abbas' Fatah movement.
Obama has asked the Palestinians for a "credible answer" to that problem. Abbas says he and not the Palestinian government will be negotiating — and there is a sense that such a finessing would be acceptable to the world community if Netanyahu would go along.
The Palestinians initially had said they would hold an emergency meeting Friday to decide how to respond to Obama, but that meeting was delayed to allow for a round of consultations with the Arab world.
Abbas has spoken by phone to the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. He also was to consult with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Bahrain, Algeria, the Arab League, Russia and the European Union, Erekat said. After the phone calls, Abbas might head to Jordan for talks with King Abdullah II and others in the Arab world before returning to the West Bank for consultations with PLO and Fatah leaders in coming days, Erekat said.
Asked whether the parameters of a peace deal laid out by Obama in his speech Thursday are enough to entice the Palestinians to return to talks and drop their bid for U.N. recognition, Erekat said it's too early to consider such a step.
Even if Abbas were to choose the politically costly option of aborting the U.N. bid, the road to a resumption of talks, let alone a peace deal, would be long.
Netanyahu, en route to the United States, fired off a statement immediately after Obama's speech saying he would ask Obama during their White House meeting Friday what was meant by the 1967 lines — an idea rendered open to interpretation by the president's additional phrase about "mutually agreed swaps" of land.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity in exchange for discussing sensitive negotiations, said the new formulation, endorsing the pre-1967 cease-fire line, was presented in the hopes of dissuading the Palestinians from going ahead with their U.N. plan.
It differed from previous U.S. positions in nuance — but important nuance.
"The U.S. is now formally on record, in no uncertain terms, advocating for an initial deal based on the 1967 lines, with land swaps, and agreed security provisions," said Scott Lasensky, an analyst with the U.S. Institute of Peace. "The administration had danced around that formulation for some time, but typically had framed it as an aspiration of the parties — rather than U.S. policy."
For example, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently called for talks on a deal that "reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps," with Israel's demands.
Netanyahu said Thursday that "he would ask Obama for a "reaffirmation" of commitments made by President George W. Bush in a 2004 letter to then-Israeli premier Ariel Sharon that "relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible."
Referring to Israel's settlements, Bush wrote: "In light of new realities on the ground ... it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949" — a term synonymous with the pre-1967 borders. The Obama administration has said it did not consider that letter binding.
The question has been around ever since Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza, east Jerusalem and other territories in the 1967 Middle East war. A few months later Security Council Resolution 242 called for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict," avoiding use of "the territories" and leaving the sides to debate whether this meant Israel could keep some areas.
In 2000, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton had laid out parameters for a future peace deal, proposing that the Palestinians keep all of Gaza and up to 96 percent of the West Bank, while Israel would annex areas where it has settled Jews in east Jerusalem and some Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinians would be compensated in a land swap. That never led to agreement.
Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, sought to annex 6.5 percent of the West Bank, including some of the largest Jewish settlements, to Israel, and offered an equal amount of Israeli land in exchange. Abbas said he was ready to swap no more than 1.9 percent, which means the vast majority of settlements would have to go. Those talks broke off in 2008 as well.
For Netanyahu, as head of the right-wing Likud, it is a major leap that he is willing to state, as he did in Israel's parliament on Monday, that he would acquiesce to a Palestinian state.
But the Israeli leader still rejects a division of Jerusalem, wants to keep troops along the Jordan River on the Palestinian state's eastern flank, and wants to retain major blocs of Jewish settlements — almost certainly including the settlement of Ariel right in the middle of the northern West Bank.
Could all that possibly occur under "mutually agreed swaps?" Few observers seem to think so. Important questions include how much land can be swapped, and whether the amount on either side of the pre-1967 line must be equal.
Abbas repeatedly has asked Obama to present his own outlines for a final deal, particularly aiming for an unequivocal statement that the 1967 borders are the basis for negotiations.
Having lost patience, and having failed to secure the Israeli settlement freeze Obama himself has called for, the Palestinians have turned to a different plan: Going to the General Assembly for recognition in September.
But that is a problematic gambit, because it takes the Security Council to set membership in motion, and the Palestinians face a likely U.S. veto in that forum. The General Assembly can only recommend and issue calls; although the Palestinians have a near-certain majority there, the outcome promises to be messy and there are some concerns about how Palestinians will react after all the buildup perhaps yields little change on the ground.
It's not clear whether Obama's speech went far enough in coaxing the Palestinians back to negotiations. He did not specifically call on Israel to halt settlement construction. He also said Israel must be "the homeland for the Jewish people," which suggests a precluding of any Palestinian demands for a "right of return" of large numbers of Palestinian refugees and descendants. But he did not ask the Palestinians to drop that demand, as the Israelis would have liked.
Bassem Zbeidy, a Palestinian analyst, said the speech did not meet Palestinian expectations — and added that he was concerned that Obama criticized the Palestinians' planned U.N. bid and Abbas' recent reconciliation agreement with Hamas.
"This is very bad news since he (Obama) is basically accusing the Palestinians of isolating Israel and condoning terrorism. I see this speech as a few steps backwards," Zbeidy said.
Israeli columnist Gideon Levy, writing in Haaretz, found the greatest significance in Obama's clear opposition to the Palestinian's UN plan: "Obama destroyed the Palestinians' only achievement: the momentum toward international recognition. After America, Europe will have to oppose the initiative a well. The Palestinians are again left with Brazil and Cuba."
Dan Perry is the AP bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian territories, and Karin Laub is chief Ramallah correspondent. Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.