Obama and Netanyahu are allies only by tradition, and their relationship lacks personal warmth and is tested often by their differing political views. As they acknowledged their divisions in an appearance before reporters at the White House, it was clear that the split would not be easily resolved at a time when the Middle East and North Africa are undergoing historic political change.
“Israel wants peace. I want peace. What we all want is a peace that will be genuine, that will hold, that will endure,” said Netanyahu, addressing Obama next to him but also an evening television audience in Israel. “The only peace that will endure is one that is based on reality, on unshakable facts. I think for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities.”
Netanyahu, in a lecturing tone, then ruled out an Israeli withdrawal to the nation’s boundaries on the eve of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which ended with the West Bank, Gaza Strip and other territories under Israel’s control.
Only a day earlier, Obama called for those 1967 lines to be the basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations over final borders, adding that negotiated land swaps would also be needed.
His predecessor, George W. Bush, had called Israel’s withdrawal to those lines “unrealistic,” given the large Israeli settlements that have been built in the West Bank over more than four decades of occupation.
Israel “cannot go back to the 1967 lines, because these lines are indefensible,” Netanyahu said Friday. “They don’t take into account certain changes that have taken place on the ground, demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.”
Administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private meeting, said that Obama, like Bush before him, knows Israel will almost certainly not return to the 1967 lines in a final peace agreement. But the officials said Obama chose to stress a different starting point for talks, even though the negotiated outcome might be the same, to introduce a new element into what has been a stalled process.
“The positions are consistent,” one official said, referring to Obama’s and Bush’s policies toward negotiations. “We certainly know what the president’s position doesn’t mean — a return to the 1967 lines.”
Obama’s reference to the 1967 lines as a basis for talks, which took Israeli officials by surprise, prompted debate within the administration over how much pressure — or how little — he should apply to Israel at this time of political uncertainty across the Middle East, including in the Arab countries that are Israel’s neighbors.