In front of the assembled media in the Oval Office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Friday bluntly rejected President Obama's call a day earlier for Israel to use its pre-1967 borders as the negotiating baseline for a peace deal with the Palestinians.
"While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines," Mr. Netanyahu said, addressing Mr. Obama rather than speaking to the assembled reporters and photographers. "These lines are indefensible. For there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities."
Mr. Obama downplayed their dispute, which he had sparked during a major speech Thursday on the Middle East. The president stated publicly that he supports a Palestinian state based on boundaries before the Six-Day War in which Israel took control of east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza — with the two sides negotiating "mutually agreed" land swaps to adjust the 1967 lines.
"Obviously there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language," Mr. Obama said, without referring directly to the boundary issue. "That's going to happen between friends."
Mr. Obama's endorsement of a key demand of Palestinian statehood was the latest complication in what has been a tense relationship with the Israeli leader. Israelis are concerned that by stating the border issue publicly as a condition of peace talks, Mr. Obama has removed a bargaining point from any eventual negotiations.
The two leaders met in the White House for 90 minutes, about twice as long as administration officlals said was scheduled for the meeting. Afterward, both men did try to reaffirm the strength of the bilateral alliance.
"What we are in complete accord about is that a true peace can only occur if the ultimate resolution allows Israel to defend itself against threats, and that Israel's security will remain paramount in U.S. evaluations of any prospective peace deal," Mr. Obama said. He added that Palestinians "are going to have to answer some difficult questions" about the extremist Hamas organization, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, playing a key role in their leadership.
Said Mr. Netanyahu, "We may have differences here and there, but I think there's an overall direction that we wish to work together to pursue a real, genuine peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors."
Although Mr. Obama called their meeting "extremely constructive and productive," there was no sign that the two men resolved any of the issues blocking the way to restarting negotiations with the Palestinians. White House spokesman Jay Carney said later that the two leaders are "committed to working together" and that the administration's commitment to Israel's security is "unshakable." The episode comes just a week after the administration's special envoy to the Middle East, former Sen. George Mitchell, announced his resignation.
Critics in Congress accused the administration of undercutting Israel on the border issue, but Mr. Carney contended that the president's statement has been the consistent U.S. position, even if previous U.S. leaders had not stated the matter so explicitly.
"The president believes it's important to speak truths that have been evident to all parties," he said.
The National Jewish Democratic Council issued a statement saying it was "laughable" to suggest Mr. Obama's pronouncement was any different from the policies of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The group said all three administrations have discussed "mutally agreed swaps" of territory as part of any negotiations.
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