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Obama Presses Israel to Make ‘Hard Choices’

‘I can continue defending you to the hilt, but if you give me nothing to work with, even America can’t save you.’

HELENE COOPER, The New York Times, May 22, 2011

WASHINGTON — President Obama struck back at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in a speech to a pro-Israel lobbying group on Sunday, defending his stance that talks over a Palestinian state should be focused on Israel’s pre-1967 borders, along with negotiated land swaps, and challenging Israel to “make the hard choices” necessary to bring about a stable peace.

Mr. Obama, speaking before a conference of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, offered familiar assurances that the United States’ commitment to Israel’s long-term security was “ironclad.” But citing the rising political upheaval near Israel’s borders, he presented his peace plan as the best chance Israel has to avoid growing isolation.

“We cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace,” Mr. Obama said. The world, he said, “is moving too fast.”

Administration officials said it would be up to Mr. Obama, during an economic summit in Paris next weekend, to try to talk his European counterparts out of endorsing Palestinian statehood in a coming United Nations vote, a prospect that would deeply embarrass Israel. Some French officials have already indicated that they are leaning toward such an endorsement.

“He basically said, ‘I can continue defending you to the hilt, but if you give me nothing to work with, even America can’t save you,’ ” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator and a fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.

The appearance by Mr. Obama on Sunday punctuated a tense week in which he and Mr. Netanyahu made their separate cases about Palestinian statehood to American audiences. Mr. Netanyahu will address the same group on Monday and will speak before Congress on Tuesday at the invitation of Republican lawmakers.

In his speech, Mr. Obama did not directly confront Mr. Netanyahu, who, while seated next to him at the White House last Friday, rejected the proposal Mr. Obama made a day earlier that negotiations use Israel’s 1967 borders as a starting point.

Mr. Obama’s decision to stick to his position, albeit with strong reassurances about America’s lasting bond with Israel, is a risky one politically. Mr. Obama is just starting a re-election campaign, and Republicans are doing what they can to present themselves to Jewish voters as more reliable protectors of Israel than the Democrats.

Republicans moved swiftly to criticize his Middle East proposal. “The U.S. ought not to be trying to push Israel into a deal that’s not good for Israel,” the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Administration officials said Mr. Obama chose to confront Israel on the stalled peace negotiations after his aides calculated that given the historic upheaval under way in the Arab world, the United States and Israel would both benefit from being seen as taking bold steps toward ending the impasse between Israelis and Palestinians.

As Mr. Obama himself pointed out, his theme in the speech last Thursday was not extraordinary. American presidents, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, have consistently instructed their foreign policy aides to pursue an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians using the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed land swaps, as a basis for talks.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, in fact, made such a proposal to the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in 2008, as the two sides rushed to complete a peace deal before Mr. Bush and Mr. Olmert left office.

But the 1967 border issue has always been privately understood, not spoken publicly, and certainly not publicly endorsed by a sitting American president.

When Mr. Obama did so last Thursday, he unleashed a furious response from Mr. Netanyahu. The prime minister’s office put out a statement in advance of his meeting with Mr. Obama the next day in which Mr. Netanyahu said he expected to hear certain assurances from the president.

“That was Bibi over the top,” one administration official said Saturday, referring to Mr. Netanyahu by his nickname. “That’s not how you address the president of the United States.”

Mr. Obama addressed his critics on Sunday, saying, “What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately.”

Mr. Obama did offer words of assurance. He repeated what the Israeli prime minister so objected to — the reference to pre-1967 borders — and challenged those who he said had “misrepresented” his position.

But, he said, “let me reaffirm what ‘1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps’ means.” His view, he said, is that “the parties themselves — Israelis and Palestinians — will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.”

“It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation,” he continued. “It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.”

Mr. Netanyahu, in his critique of Mr. Obama’s earlier remarks, had ignored the “mutually agreed swaps” part of the president’s proposal.

Mr. Obama’s remarks Sunday contrasted with those delivered a few minutes earlier by Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland, who gave a no-holds-barred speech filled with applause lines for the assembled lobbying group delegates.

Mr. Hoyer got several standing ovations, including a long one after he declared: “I believe in Palestinian statehood. But I stand strongly against one that is declared either unilaterally or by an international body,” in an allusion to the United Nations vote, which is slated for September.

Administration officials argue that one way to try to derail the United Nations vote is to have a viable peace process under way between Israelis and Palestinians.

On Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu gave a more muted response to Mr. Obama’s speech than the one he issued last Thursday. “I share the president’s desire to advance peace, and I appreciate his efforts in the past and the present to achieve it,” he said in a statement. “I am determined to work together with President Obama to find ways to renew the peace negotiations.”

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, commented on the speech by telephone from the West Bank city of Jericho: “I am waiting to hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu. Does he accept the doctrine of two states on the 1967 line with agreed swaps or not? Before we hear that acceptance, we are just grinding water.”

Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

© 2011 The New York Times Company