Netanyahu caught unprepared by Obama's stern message

15:40, May 23, 2011      

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U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, May 20, 2011. Obama's call for Israel to give Palestinians territory it has occupied since 1967 stunned Netanyahu and pushed the leaders' thawing relationship back into the freezer. (Xinhua/Reuters)

by Adam Gonn

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried on Sunday to smooth over speculation of a personal falling out with United States President Barack Obama.

It was during a televised meeting between the two at the White House on Friday that Netanyahu, in unusually blunt words, criticized Obama for his Middle East policy speech delivered the previous day.

The Israeli leader gave Obama a lecture on the history of the Jewish people, and argued that Obama's support for the pre-1967 cease-fire lines as a basis for the borders of a future Palestinian state would leave Israel with "indefensible borders."

But a spokesman for Netanyahu told local media that "the reports of a disagreement have been blown way out of proportion."

Ya'akov Amidror, head of Israel's National Security Council, also tried to tone down the situation and was quoted as saying that although "Israel and the U.S. do dispute the basic question of 'yes' or 'no' to 1967 borders, the parties see eye-to-eye on a need for negotiations and not unilateral moves."

Amidror was referring to a Palestinian initiative to ask the United Nations to back a resolution calling for recognition of an independent Palestinian state in September.

Regional pundits believe that Netanyahu was caught off guard by Obama's speech. "While Obama has asked Israel to make concessions before, Netanyahu this time feels that he can't give in," one analyst said.

OLD STANDPOINTS, NEW MESSAGE

Prof. Galia Golan of the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya told Xinhua that Obama's policy speech on Thursday was problematic in some ways, "because it looks like he was trying to create an equivalence between the sides, and there are certainly things that were difficult for Netanyahu to take."

"The American position has always been the 1967 line with minor adjustments," Golan said, "And then, more recently, instead of adjustments they say swaps."

The position isn't new in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, during his term in office, proposed that Israel annexes 6.3 percent of the West Bank, on which 75 percent of all its settlers live, in exchange for the land around Gaza and the southern West Bank. But the proposal was rejected by the Palestinians.

Before Netanyahu left for the U.S., he gave a speech in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, outlining five principles for future negations with the Palestinians. "The bottom-line is that Israel is now in a worse position," Golan said.

"What has been holding the talks is the settlement building, and there is nothing in the speech about that," she added.

"I think Netanyahu made a mistake. He basically launched an attack on Obama's support for the 1967 line," Golan said.


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