President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday sought to tone down a fresh crisis after the two clashed in public at the White House two days earlier over Mr. Obama's call for a border between Israel and a Palestinian state to be based on the 1967 line demarcating the West Bank.
Addressing a conference of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Sunday, Obama seemed to address Mr. Netanyahu’s blunt assertion Friday that using the 1967 line as future border is "indefensible" by stressing that the sides would need to draw a new border that would include territorial swaps to allow Israel to incorporate some settlements into the Jewish state. Soon after Obama's speech, Netanyahu released a statement expressing "appreciation" for the remarks.
But few believe Sunday’s comments can cover up what Israeli analysts see as the same lack of trust and coordination between the two administrations that has been festering for two years. That crisis will be on display in the coming days when Netanyahu addresses AIPAC on Monday and then gives a speech to Congress on Tuesday.
"There is a lot of suspicion on both sides, and that is a problem,’’ says Shmuel Rosner, a columnist for the Israeli daily Maariv. "Obama suspects that the Netanyahu government doesn’t want to advance the two-state solution and that it is dragging its felt because it doesn’t support the peace process in general. And I think the Netanyahu government suspects that this administration might try to … to force a solution that will not be acceptable to Israelis.’’
Mr. Rosner says that the prime minister was put off because he got short notice last week of Obama’s plans to reference the 1967 borders as a starting point for renewed peace talks.
Although Obama noted on Sunday that the sides had already discussed such a principle in past negotiations, Netanyahu considers the US endorsement as a game-changing development. However, the Israeli prime minister’s response of lecturing Obama on camera on Friday was "disproportionate" and bordered on "hysterical," Rosner says.
Parsing words – and body language
Israeli newspapers were brimming with deconstructions of Friday's meeting of the two leaders, suggesting that the body language during the on-camera remarks was evidence of mutual disdain and frustration.
A front page headline in the Yediot Ahronot spoke of "mutual mistrust" while the daily Israel Hayom quoted a prime ministerial aide who said "President Obama doesn’t understand reality.’’
Writing in the daily Maariv, Ben Caspit said "we have declared war on America."
Members of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, meanwhile, were quick to back him up, leading some to speculate that Netanyahu believes that a majority of Israelis will back him over his refusal to negotiate based on the 1967 line.
A year ago, a dispute between the allies over building in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem sparked a crisis and a chilly meeting at the White House between the leaders. And during the first months of Obama’s tenure, the sides sparred in public over his opposition to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.
It had seemed – after the administration last year dropped pursuing a limit on Israeli settlement expansion – that Obama and Netanyahu had improved their ties. But the outbreak of regional turmoil in the Arab world has exposed once again differing world views, with the US president urging a renewed effort to restart moribund peace talks as more essential than ever and the Israeli prime minister calling for caution.
"The crisis is very serious. This is not something you can put lipstick on," said Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based Middle East analyst. "It seems the Obama administration is joining the rest of the international community in believing that the current administration doesn’t believe in creating trust and going forward with the peace process.’’