JERUSALEM — Israel’s prime minister on Thursday gave a cool reception to President Barack Obama’s Mideast policy speech, warning a withdrawal from the West Bank wold leave Israel vulnerable to attack and setting up what could be a tense meeting at the White House.
In his speech, Obama endorsed the Palestinian position on the borders of their future state, saying it should be based on Israel’s lines before the 1967 Mideast war. Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in the fighting, and the Palestinians claim those areas for their state.
The U.S., the international community and even past Israeli governments have endorsed a settlement based on the 1967 lines, but Obama was far more explicit than in the past. His position appeared to put him at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has not accepted the concept.
Reacting to Obama’s speech, Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a full withdrawal from the West Bank, saying the 1967 lines were “indefensible” and would leave major Jewish settlements outside Israel. Netanyahu rejects any pullout from east Jerusalem.
Netanyahu heads to the White House on Friday and said he would seek clarifications.
Behind the rhetoric, though, was the possibility of finding common ground. Obama said he would support agreed-upon territorial swaps between the Israel and the Palestinians, leaving the door open for Israel to retain major West Bank settlements, where the vast majority of its nearly 300,000 Jewish settlers live.
Netanyahu said he would urge Obama to endorse a 2004 American commitment, made by then President George W. Bush, to Israel. In a letter at the time, Bush said a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines was “unrealistic” and a future peace agreement would have to recognize “new realities on the ground.”
Israelis have interpreted Bush’s commitment as U.S. support for retaining the major settlement blocs. Earlier this week, Netanyahu said Israel would have to retain the blocs as part of any future peace agreement.
But Netanyahu also wants to keep other parts of the West Bank, including a strategic section of land along the Jordanian border that he believes is vital to Israel’s security. The Palestinians oppose any Israeli presence in their future state.
Netanyahu said he would reiterate his security demands at Friday’s meeting.
Netanyahu said he plans to raise other demands: Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish homeland, guarantees that Palestinian refugees be resettled outside of Israel and condemnation of an emerging Palestinian government that is to include the anti-Israel Hamas militant group.
With peacemaking stalled for months, the Palestinians have said they will ask the United Nations to recognize their independence in September, with or without a peace deal.
In his speech, Obama rejected the U.N. push. “Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state,” Obama said.
It was not immediately clear whether Obama’s statement on the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations — something the Palestinians have long sought — would be sufficient to persuade the Palestinians to drop their quest for U.N. recognition.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas planned to convene a meeting with senior officials as soon as possible to decide on the next steps, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Abbas is determined “to give President Obama’s effort and that of the international community the chance they deserve,” Erekat said.
Former U.S. Democratic Congresman Robert Wexler, president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace in Washington, said the speech had created a “moment of truth” for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
“No longer in earnest can President Abbas seek a United Nations resolution and say he’s serious about the creation of a Palestinian state. And likewise, Prime Minister Netanyahu must determine whether he is willing to negotiate based on the 1967 lines with agreed-upon territorial swaps,” he said.