US President Barack Obama on Thursday endorsed a key Palestinian demand for the borders of its future state and prodded Israel to accept that it can never have a truly peaceful nation based on “permanent occupation.”
Obama’s urging that a Palestinian state be based on 1967 borders — before the Six-Day War in which Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza — was a significant shift in the US approach. It drew an immediate negative response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to meet with Obama at the White House yesterday.
In a statement released late on Thursday in Jerusalem, Netanyahu called the 1967 lines “indefensible,” saying such a withdrawal would jeopardize Israel’s security and leave major West Bank settlements outside Israeli borders, though Obama left room for adjustments reached through negotiations.
At the same time, 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 push for UN recognition of their statehood. Obama rejected the Palestinians’ unilateral statehood bid on Thursday as he sought to underscore US support for Israel notwithstanding the endorsement of the 1967 borders.
“Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state,” Obama said.
On the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the president cautioned that the recent power-sharing agreement between the mainstream Palestinian faction led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the radical Hamas movement that rules Gaza “raises profound and legitimate” security questions for Israel. Netanyahu has refused to deal with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.
“How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” Obama said. “In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.”
Abbas planned to convene a meeting with senior officials as soon as possible to decide on the next steps, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
Abbas is determined “to give President Obama’s effort and that of the international community the chance they deserve,” Erekat said.
The US, 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 Netanyahu, who has not accepted the concept, including a pullout from East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu said he would urge Obama at their meeting to endorse a 2004 US commitment, made by then US 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 US 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.
However, 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.