- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2011

President Obama, seeking to quell criticism of his call for the borders of Israel and a Palestinian state to be based on 1967 lines, stressed Sunday to the country’s biggest pro-Israel lobby that he also supports land swaps between the two sides to reflect changes on the ground over the past 40 years.

Mr. Obama’s address to about 10,000 members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, though previously scheduled, was an attempt to highlight nuances to his position on the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate that the president said had been lost in the three days since he made the remarks that roiled supporters — and leaders — of the Jewish state.

“If there’s a controversy then, it’s not based on substance. What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately,” Mr. Obama told the annual conference in Washington. “I have done so because we cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace.”

Mr. Obama stood by his position, outlined Thursday, that any two-state solution must be “based on the 1967 lines, the boundaries in effect before the Six-Day War, in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. But, noting that he also called for “mutually agreed swaps” of land, the president pointedly assured the audience Sunday that meant the two sides “will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967” — a line that drew strong cheers from the crowd.

Mr. Obama emphasized his administration’s commitment to Israel, citing increased military aid even during a recession and additional funding for its Iron Dome anti-rocket system.

“Even while we may at times disagree, as friends sometimes will, the bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable, and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad,” he said, drawing a standing ovation.

Still, it’s not immediately clear if the assurances will be enough to ease tensions that have been high since Mr. Obama’s discussion of the stalled process in a speech last week on the changes sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

A spokesman for AIPAC said the organization “appreciates” Mr. Obama’s “statement that the U.S. does not expect Israel to withdraw to the boundaries that existed between Israel and Jordan in 1967 before the Six-Day War,” also commending the president for acknowledging that Israel can’t be expected to negotiate with Hamas when the militant group denies its fundamental right to exist.

Arthur Fredman, who was in the audience for the president’s address Sunday, likewise said Mr. Obama “said the right things.”

“I think his speechwriters were more on target today,” the Milburn, N.J., resident said. Asked if the president had assuaged his concerns over the 1967 border issue, however, Mr. Fredman said it’s too soon to know.

White House officials defended the position Mr. Obama laid out Thursday as consistent with long-standing U.S. foreign policy, but it nevertheless drew the ire of Republicans and even some Democrats, who accused the president of undermining a critical ally.

Perhaps the most high-profile criticism came from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who flatly dismissed the 1967 lines as “indefensible” in a previously scheduled visit Friday with Mr. Obama in the Oval Office.

“What we all want is a peace that will be genuine, that will hold, that will endure,” said Mr. Netanyahu, who leads a right-of-center coalition. “The only peace that will endure is one that is based on reality, on unshakeable facts.”

What appeared to be a blunt disagreement between the two men casts further doubt over the peace process. Direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians collapsed last fall, when Palestinian negotiators left the table in anger over the Israeli government’s refusal to halt settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The president acknowledged his remarks created a backlash but said it’s important to be candid with allies.

“I know that stating these principles — on the issues of territory and security — generated some controversy over the past few days,” he said to muted laughter. “I know very well that the easy thing to do, particularly for a president preparing for re-election, is to avoid any controversy but as I said to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I believe that the current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination. I also believe that real friends talk openly and honestly with one another.”

The heated tensions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were on full display outside the conference site Sunday morning as attendees walked by throngs of protesters who called the group a “bully” and a “dinosaur.” The demonstrators called for an end to U.S. military aid to Israel and accused the Netanyahu government of perpetrating violence against Palestinians.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the street, a pro-Israel activist passed out leaflets criticizing Mr. Obama’s “anti-Israel speech.”

Mr. Netanyahu is set to address the AIPAC conference on Monday before delivering an address to Congress on Tuesday.

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