- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2011

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.

After Mr. Obama’s speech, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called an emergency meeting of Palestinian leaders.

“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.

“That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress.”

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.”

Aaron David Miller, an adviser to six secretaries of state on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, disagreed.

“This is the first time an American president in a high-profile, much-anticipated speech put out the concept of 1967 borders and mutually agreeable swaps without softening it for the Israelis with any kind of context,” said Mr. Miller, now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “This administration has not validated the Bush letters and apparently they will not.”

In his speech, Mr. Obama made many remarks favoring Israel. He noted that Palestinians walked away from negotiations this year, a reference to U.S. attempts to persuade Mr. Netanyahu to agree to a freeze in settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Mr. Abbas never promised to return to negotiations, even if Mr. Netanyahu committed to extend the 10-month settlement freeze he started in November 2009.

Mr. Obama also said a Palestinian state should be demilitarized, a condition that was part of some of the Oslo-era negotiations in 2000 and a key element of Mr. Netanyahu’s 2009 speech outlining Israeli conditions for Palestinian statehood.

Mr. Obama pledged to protect Israel from efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state within the United Nations. In a pointed criticism of the new unity government between the Fatah party of Mr. Abbas and the Hamas party that rejects Israel’s right to exist, Mr. Obama said: “For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure.”

He also said the United States would not support a Palestinian plan to have the United Nations General Assembly in September unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state.

“Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state,” Mr. Obama said. “Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.”

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Al-Jazeera that he was disappointed in Mr. Obama’s speech. “What Obama needs to do is not to add slogans but to take concrete steps to protect the rights of the Palestinian people and the Arab nation,” he said.

Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor and current Republican presidential candidate, said in a statement to the news media that “President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus. He has disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace.”

• Eli Lake can be reached at elake@washingtontimes.com.

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