When reached via cell phone immediately after President Obama’s speech urging a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev sounded as though he had been slapped in the face.
Netanyahu swiftly rejected Obama's call for Israel to pull back to the borders that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War. Roughly translated from Hebrew, a statement from the Prime Minister’s office said that they appreciated Obama's commitment to peace, but called the pullback to the 1967 borders "indefensible," and said that the Palestinians were less than an honest partner in the peace process.
While the idea of using the 1967 borders as a starting point to negotiate land swaps for a final peace deal is not new, hearing an American president use those words sent chills through the Netanyahu government, which is loathe to even think the words “'67 borders.”
Every Israeli television channel carried the speech live and commentators did not have to wait for a formal reaction to the speech to comment that Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition government would feel both blindsided and abandoned by a U.S. administration that has never been viewed as a friend.
Speaking with Fox News immediately after the speech, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Dore Gold called the speech a “a radical shift in U.S. policy.”
While the current focus is on 1967 borders, Obama did follow that up with “land swaps,” which is diplomatic speak for allowing Israel to hold on to certain settlement blocks that have been built in the West Bank, while trading out other land.
President Obama said he thought both sides should wait to decide on the issue of dividing Jerusalem as a capital city and how to deal with Palestinian refugees.
The timing of the speech is also of serious consequence as Netanyahu and his advisers had only a couple of hours to formulate a reaction before leaving for the United States, and a planned meeting with Obama and speech to a joint session of Congress.
The president’s speech acknowledged the fact it will be difficult for Israel to negotiate with the new Palestinian Unity government that includes Hamas, which has thus far refused to recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist.
While the ’67 border statement was seen has a huge development, Obama didn’t entirely side with the Palestinians. Far from it.
Most importantly, the president offered U.S. support during September's expected U.N. vote to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state.
The timing of Obama’s speech sets up a weekend of huge news for the Middle East.
It would be hard to imagine that this does much to thaw the rather frigid relationship that exists between Obama and Netanyahu; and it could make for an interesting meeting when the two sit down privately at the White House on Friday.
Sunday the president will speak to the politically powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, at the lobbying group’s annual meeting.
In perhaps a foreshadowing of what was to come, AIPAC’s president sent out an email to members and conference attendees reminding them to treat speakers (aka the president) with respect.
On Tuesday Netanyahu will speak to a joint session of Congress.
Last year, when Obama publicly embarrassed Netanyahu by not posing for pictures with him during a visit and then pushed hard to restart peace talks, Israel supporters in both the House and Senate wrote a letter supporting Israel to the President.
Fortunately for Netanyahu, he will have more than an hour to formulate his speech to Congress, which, if it reads anything like Thursday night’s response, will be a clear rejection of the president's plan.