Obama Shifts Tone on Israel Borders
President Says Nation Wouldn't Cede All Land Gained in '67; 'Swaps
By JAY SOLOMON And LAURA MECKLER
WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama, two days after a frosty meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, restated his call for a resumption of negotiations between Israel and Palestinians based on the Jewish state's borders before the 1967 Six Day War, while trying to soften its impact.
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The U.S. president, speaking Sunday before Washington's most powerful pro-Israel lobby, combined his call with strong assertions that his administration recognized that Israel won't give up all the lands it gained during the 1967 conflict as part of a final agreement—a point Mr. Netanyahu stressed when meeting the American leader Friday.
Instead, Mr. Obama more clearly stated his belief that "land swaps" between Israel and the Palestinians must be central to any deal.
"By definition, it means that the parties themselves—Israelis and Palestinians—will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967," Mr. Obama told members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "That is what mutually agreed swaps means. It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation."
Still, the U.S. president stressed that Israel's leaders needed to recognize that time wasn't on their side in pursuing peace with the Palestinians. He noted that the demographics were shifting in favor of Arab populations and that Hamas and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah were deploying increasingly sophisticated weaponry.
Mr. Obama leaves for a six-day tour of Ireland, Britain, France and Poland Sunday night, where the Mideast turmoil is expected to be an ongoing theme of discussion.
The president created a diplomatic firestorm last Thursday when he stated during a wide-ranging address on the Middle East his support for a resumption of stalled peace talks utilizing the 1967 baseline. Mr. Netanyahu rebuked Mr. Obama's position a day later during their Oval Office meeting. And many pro-Israel lawmakers and organizations voiced fears that Mr. Obama was significantly altering U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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President Obama, arriving onstage for his speech Sunday, greets Lee Rosenberg, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The president's address to the influential Israeli lobbying organization represented an attempt to restate his views in a package more acceptable to Israel and its supporters. In particular, Mr. Obama this time paired his talk about borders with blanket assertions of his commitment to Israeli security.
Mr. Netanyahu opposes any preconditions on talks with the Palestinians—such as a commitment on borders—that are seen as forcing Israel to make concessions at the front-end of a negotiation. Israel's leader also said last week that reverting to the 1967 lines would make his country "indefensible," because of demographic and military changes in the region.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush provided "assurances" to Israel in 2004 that Washington wouldn't require Israel to give up sizable Jewish settlements in the West Bank as part of any final agreement.
Many of Mr. Obama's aides felt the president's position had been misunderstood, particularly his recognition of the need for land swaps to modify the pre-1967 borders. On Sunday, Mr. Obama argued that his position didn't mark a big shift from the positions of presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Mr. Obama noted that their administrations developed peace processes that inherently used the 1967 borders as a baseline for talks, though they didn't state the position as clearly.
"There was nothing particularly original in my proposal; this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations," Mr. Obama said.
Transcript of Obama's Remarks to AIPAC
U.S.-Israeli Relations Have Been Rocky Before
Mr. Obama also said one reason he was aggressively pursuing a resumption of peace talks was to offset efforts by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to convince the United Nations in September to vote to recognize Palestine as a sovereign state—a plan that many diplomats believe will succeed.
Mr. Obama used his speech to reassure Israel and the thousands of Jewish-Americans in attendance that the White House remained committed to preserving the Jewish state's military edge through billions of dollars in annual U.S. military aid.
He also received standing ovations by citing what he called existential threats posed to Israel by Iran's nuclear program and the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which the U.S. designates a terrorist group.
Mr. Netanyahu on Sunday also moved to defuse diplomatic tension with the White House. "I am partner to the president's desire to foster peace and I value his efforts in the past and the present to achieve this goal," his office said in a statementafter Mr. Obama's speech. The Israeli leader will address the Jewish committee Monday night.
Mr. Obama's comments on the 1967 lines drew a reserved response, and were jeered by a few audience members. But the president's overall speech was received warmly. Committee organizers had privately voiced fears that some members might jeer the president.
"He successfully clarified some of his comments from Thursday," said Jacob Shapiro, a committee member from New York, who said he was initially confused by Mr. Obama's position. "The term '1967 borders' is a loaded term."
"I thought he delivered the exact message he needed to deliver," said Marc Oppenheimer of Las Vegas. He clarified his position."
The committee praised the speech. Still, unease remained among some delegates. "He wanted to demonstrate his support of Israel, but it was not concrete enough to be someone you can absolutely trust. He's a politician," said Arthur Finkle, a committee delegate and chemical sales representative from Fairfield, Conn.
He said Mr. Obama appeared to be reversing his Thursday view on the 1967 borders, even though the president said he