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05.20.11

Obama's Israel Blowup

The president’s bold stance on Mideast peace—restoring the 1967 borders—got an icy response from Netanyahu, praise from Jewish rights groups, and grief from Palestinians. Read the world’s reactions.

The Speech

On Thursday President Obama delivered what was billed as a “major speech” on the Middle East. Touted as an articulation of the administration’s foreign policy in the region, the speech outlined few specific initiatives, but the biggest news was Obama’s statement on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. While stopping short of laying out a process for peace, he said, “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.” To achieve that, there must be two states "based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” he said—while shying away from sticky questions of Jerusalem and the refugees’ fate.

Bibi Fires Back

That plan was not well-received by Israel’s government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday publicly rebuked the 1967 border plan, calling those lines “indefensible.” In a tense White House sit-down, Bibi told Obama that “peace based on illusions will crash eventually on the rocks of Middle East reality.” The pair met for two hours, and Netanyahu will speak before a joint session of Congress Tuesday—which many see as another opportunity to rail against Obama. Obama, meanwhile, was calm despite Netanyahu’s anger. “Obviously, there are some differences between us in the precise formulas and language, and that’s going to happen between friends,” Obama said. But, he added, “I think that it is possible for us to resolve what has obviously been a wrenching issue for decades now.”

Israeli Op-ed: Obama’s Plan ‘Unworkable’

Israel’s centrist English-language daily, JPost, chalked up the difference between Netanyahu and Obama to “a significantly different way of viewing reality.” Obama takes the “land-for-peace” formula, while Netanyahu is using past experiences. Part of the reason for Netanyahu’s reaction, the paper suggested, is due to uncertainty following the Arab Spring—and losing some crucial allies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. But it’s risky for both of them—they are both facing being blamed for ruining the U.S.-Israel relationship.

JPost editor David Horovitz wrote an editorial saying Obama underestimates Palestinian intolerance of Israel. “It is the president’s evident incapacity to appreciate the uncompromising Palestinian refusal to countenance Israel’s legitimacy that is the most damaging to the vital American-Israeli relationship and most dooming to his approach to peacekeeping.” Horovitz goes on to call Obama’s plan “unworkable” and “counterproductive,” and he criticizes Obama for not stating “clearly and firmly” that Palestine will have to solve the refugee crisis himself.

Palestinians Discouraged

Immediately following Obama’s Thursday speech, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called an emergency meeting at his West Bank headquarters. While he instructed his associates not to release any public comments, an official at the meeting reported the group decided that Obama’s words “contained little hope for the Palestinians”—except for the part about restoring the 1967 borders.

As Netanyahu struck down that idea with Obama, Palestinians despaired further. Nabil Shaath, the official who met with Abbas, saw Netanyahu’s critique of the 1967 borders as “indefensible” as absurd when applied to “a tiny country like Palestine.”

Jewish Groups ‘Delighted’

Back in the U.S., some Jewish rights groups saw the public dispute as a good thing. “I was delighted,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. The reason? Because it made clear that Obama can’t expect Netanyahu to simply agree with him.

Europe, Arab League Back Obama

The president did draw a wealth of support from the international community outside of the Middle East. The United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, William Hague, agreed with Obama that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” Similar praise came from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who called it a “good, viable path” forward. The head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, concurred.