Israel's Netanyahu primed for a 'collision' with Obama today

President Obama is hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has sharply criticized Obama's call for a return to 1967 borders, calling them 'indefensible.'

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in his office in Jerusalem, Wednesday, May 18.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to push back hard against President Obama at the White House today, a day after the American president called for Israel to return to the peace table and make difficult territorial concessions to the Palestinians. The conservative Jerusalem Post summed it up as "The speech that signals a Washington-Jerusalem collision."

Mr. Obama called for Israel's pre-1967 borders to serve as a basis for negotiations in a two-phased negotiation process that would leave the stickier issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees to be resolved later. Also Thursday, Israel announced the construction of 1,500 new housing units in East Jerusalem, which it conquered along with the West Bank in the 1967 war against its Arab neighbors. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Mr. Netanyahu's government has expressed thinly concealed outrage over Obama's speech, despite the fact that it changed little about American policy on Israel. Netanyahu is under immense pressure from the right-wing factions of his government to reject any US prescriptions for peace while in Washington, the Jerusalem Post reports.

“Barack Hussein Obama adopted Yasser Arafat’s staged plan for Israel’s destruction, and he is trying to force it on our prime minister,” said Danny Danon, a leader in the Israeli parliament from Netanyahu's Likud party. “All that was new in the speech was that he called for Israel to return to 1967 borders without solving the crisis. Netanyahu has only one option: Tell Obama to forget about it.”

Palestinians and their Arab neighbors have watched the Israeli response with cynicism and doubts that the speech will yield anything positive for the Palestinians. An editorial from the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star argues "the central obstacle has been Israel’s intransigence, and its reliance on its ability to alter US policy to suit the Jewish state’s aims."

Israel – and in particular the Cabinet of Benjamin Netanyahu – has already shown that it will perceive the speech only through the prism of its own narrow interests. Indeed, Israel also announced Thursday the construction of 1,500 new – and still illegal – settlement units in occupied Jerusalem.

The part of Obama's speech that was most controversial for Israelis was his call for an agreement based on the 1967 borders with a land swap – meaning the borders in place before the 1967 war, with territorial trades that would likely allow Israel to keep some of the settlement blocs.

Netanyahu called the 1967 borders "indefensible" and argued instead for guidelines laid out in a 2004 letter from then-President George W. Bush that "did not call for a return to the 1967 lines, and that recognized that any agreement would take into account the changed realities on the ground," the Jerusalem Post reports. In other words, the more Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, the more likely that the burgeoning settlements would be annexed by Israel – without necessarily having to make any land trades.

Meanwhile, the official Palestinian reactions showed the tough road toward reconciliation that lies ahead for Fatah and Hamas, which recently signed a unity agreement. While Fatah made tentative comments thanking Obama for his commitment to the peace process, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the speech was like "throwing dust in the eyes" and called on Fatah to work with Hamas to confront "US-Israeli arrogance," Palestinian Maan News Agency reports.

Issandr El Amrani, who blogs at The Arabist, says Obama's points on the peace process were "predictably terrible." In the same speech in which Obama supported nonviolent protests elsewhere in the region, he rejected Palestinians efforts to gain recognition of their sovereignty at the United Nations in September and to isolate Israel with its Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign (BDS), he writes.

Here, America stands against a non-violent method. The mention of "delegitimization" of Israel not only recuperates Israeli talking points, but puts non-violent methods like BDS tacitly on the same level as violence, since he deems them just as unacceptable. The US does not have to back these methods, but it does not have to condemn them either (especially when they are adopted by part of American civil society).

But American historian Mark LeVine, while critical of Obama's speech, writes on Al Jazeera that it would have been nearly impossible to leave both Israelis and Arabs satisfied with his address.

Mr. Obama clearly had an almost impossibly thin tightrope to walk upon here, as any possible substantive remark he could make would alienate either Israelis and their American supporters, or the tens of millions of Arabs watching his speech in the region.

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