Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu challenged President Obama on Thursday to reaffirm U.S. commitments to allow Israel to keep major settlements in the West Bank as part of any final peace deal with the Palestinian Authority.
The Israeli leader made the request ahead of his White House visit Friday and an hour after Mr. Obama delivered his major speech on the Middle East in which he said Israel’s 1967 border should be the basis for negotiating the borders of a Palestinian state.
“Israel believes that for peace to endure between Israelis and Palestinians, the viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state,” Mr. Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.
In his speech Thursday at the State Department, Mr. Obama said: “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”
Every U.S. president since Bill Clinton has supported the idea of land swaps between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. However, Mr. Obama is the first president since the start of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in 1993 to explicitly call for borders based on 1967 lines.
That border, also called the 1949 armistice line, separates the territory of the West Bank, Gaza and Golan that the Jewish state won in the 1967 war from the borders of Israel created after the 1948 war that established the state.
Since the 1967 war, Israel has built settlements throughout the West Bank, but most of them are suburbs of Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. Palestinian negotiators in 2008 were prepared to allow the presence of many settlements within Israel’s final borders in exchange for swaps of land with Palestinian majorities inside the 1949 armistice lines, according to a negotiating record first disclosed this year by the Al-Jazeera news organization.
The U.S. made a commitment on settlements in a 2004 letter from President Bush to Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister at the time, who had proposed a unilateral dismantling of all settlements in Gaza and another four settlements in the West Bank.
“In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, 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, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion,” Mr. Bush wrote. He also said both parties would have to agree to any swaps of territory.
The statement from the Israeli prime minister’s office said Mr. Bush’s “commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines.”
Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria, said he thought the speech made concessions to Israelis and Palestinians.
“I think people are taking what the president said on the ‘67 borders totally out of context,” he said. “I think what the president said on the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace was much more important.”
Mr. Djerejian said the idea that the 1967 borders would be the basis for negotiations has been a “constant since the 1991 Madrid talks.”