Obama and Netanyahu meet amid tensions

Laura Rozen

There were frank tensions and high suspense on display when President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged from a two-hour meeting at the White House today. And it wasn't hard to discern the latest cause of friction in relations between the two world leaders: Yesterday, Obama outlined a U.S. vision for settling the Israeli-Palestinian border dispute based on pre-1967 war lines with agreed swaps. The Israeli prime minister promptly fired back that the proposal could threaten Israeli security, before boarding a plane for his previously scheduled trip to Washington.

Obama, speaking with Netanyahu to the press after their meeting, acknowledged differences among friends, but offered reassurances on the United States' absolute commitment to Israel's security.

"Obviously there are some differences between us on precise formulations and language, and that is going to happen between friends," Obama said. "But what we are in complete accord about is that true peace can only occur if the ultimate resolution allows Israel to defend itself against threats. Israel's security remains paramount in U.S. evaluations of any prospective peace deal."

"I think it is possible for us to shape a deal that allows Israel to secure itself, not to be vulnerable, and also allows it to resolve what are obviously wrenching issues for both [Israeli and Palestinian] people for decades now," Obama said.

Netanyahu, for his part, offered polite words for Obama's commitment to Israel's security and efforts to advance Middle East peace. But, he said, there are certain "realities" the Palestinians are going to have to accept — and implying that the Obama administration should more fully take into account as well.

"Israel wants peace, I want peace," Netanyahu said. "What we all want is peace that will be genuine, that will hold, that will endure, and I think we both agree that a peace based on illusions will crash on rocks, and that the only peace that will endure is one based on the reality of unshakeable facts."

"While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, we cannot go back to '67 lines; those lines are indefensible, and don't take into account certain changes that have taken place on the ground--demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years," Netanyahu continued.

Middle East experts in touch with the administration said the Obama White House settled upon Obama's inclusion of the far-reaching Israeli-Palestinian remarks in his "Arab Spring" address yesterday in part to outflank Netanyahu's seemingly concerted courtship of Obama's domestic political opponents in Congress. Senior White House officials and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were miffed, these sources said, that Netanyahu had solicited an invitation to address both houses of Congress next week--a move White House advisers saw as a direct overture from Netanyahu to the GOP leadership in Congress.

It's not the first time Netanyahu has come in for such criticism. During his last term as prime minister during the Bill Clinton administration, Democrats raised the charge that Netanyahu was coordinating his agenda in Washington with the GOP--and in particular, with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

At the outset of today's remarks to the press on the meeting, Obama slyly referenced the "great honor" Netanyahu was receiving by addressing both houses of Congress.

"I know that's an honor that's reserved for those who have always shown themselves to be a great friend of the United States and is indicative of the friendship between our countries," Obama said, with an implied wink.

"I think the Obama folks were upset with Bibi's decision to speak at the joint session, they thought it was trying to box Obama in," one former congressional staffer told the Envoy on condition of anonymity. "I think that relates to everyone's memories of Bibi circa the 1990s trying to use the Republicans against Clinton. So they decided to preempt. They decided to set the stage. They were going to do a Mideast speech anyway, but they decided on the timing after Bibi decided to make an address to a joint session of Congress."

The decision not to brief the Israelis or other parties -- nor line up key domestic allies -- on what Obama intended to say on the Israeli-Palestinian issue until a couple hours before the speech was purposeful.

"When you pre-brief a speech of the magnitude of the one yesterday where there will be some important new policies and announcements by the President of the United States, you are inviting a lobbying campaign to try to alter them," said Amos Hochstein, a Middle East expert who advised the Obama campaign. "It's important for the White House on occasion, and it's their prerogative, that the world hear about these guidelines from the President."

Some Middle East analysts said that the larger backstory here is that Netanyahu had inadvertently pushed Obama into assuming a more assertive U.S. stance on the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, launched with fanfare at the White House last September, collapsed just three weeks later after Netanyahu refused to issue a new freeze on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank. (Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem after the Six Day War in 1967.) In the wake of their collapse, Palestinian leaders have repeatedly asserted their intention to bypass negotiations altogether and instead seek international recognition for a Palestinian state within '67 lines at the United Nations in September -- a measure that is likely to pass at the UN General Assembly.

Obama's decision to articulate what the U.S. thinks would be fair terms for resolving core issues in the dispute is motivated in large part to try to head off that unilateral route and get the parties back to the peace table. Key U.S. allies -- including the United Kingdom, France and the so-called Middle East Quartet (U.S., European Union, Russia and the United Nations)-- enthusiastically praised Obama's peace initiative in statements today.

"In a sense, the very success of Netanyahu in keeping core questions off the agenda of negotiations launched last September contained the seeds of today's crisis," said Scott Lasensky, a Middle East expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Despite Netanyahu's expressed reservations, Mideast experts said Obama's formulation on borders -- '67 lines with mutually agreed swaps -- is very similar to one the Israelis and Palestinians came close to agreeing in 2008, during the end of the Bush administration.

"It's a dirty secret for some time now that the parties negotiated intensely with the '67 line as the baseline," Lasensky said. Then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "presided over negotiations in which the Israelis and Palestinians came very close."

"One wonders if this Israeli government is hanging on to the status quo, that is evaporating very quickly," Lasensky said.

(Charles Dharapak/AP)