President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried on Friday to put the best face on evident tensions created by Obama’s remarks a day earlier, when the president outlined his vision for an eventual peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
When cameras and reporters were escorted in after the meeting, Netanyahu was polite to his U.S. host but also bluntly pushed back against Obama’s Thursday speech. In that address, Obama said Israel’s pre-1967 borders should be the basis for negotiating a settlement to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We can’t go back to those indefensible lines,” Netanyahu said, noting that the borders before the Six Day War left Israel just nine miles wide at its narrowest point. That distance, the Israeli prime minister noted, is “half the width of the Washington Beltway.
Each leader paid close attention but evinced little reaction as his counterpart spoke.
Netanyahu seemed to choose his words carefully as he called Obama’s speech “important” but stopped short of characterizing it as welcome or helpful. “I think we may have differences here and there, but I think there’s an overall direction that we wish to work together to pursue a real genuine peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbor,” he said.
In a message clearly aimed at the U.S. audience, Netanyahu also referred to Hamas as “the Palestinian version of Al Qaeda.” Just last month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cut a power-sharing deal with Hamas, which controls the Gaza strip, has committed repeated acts of terrorism and is dedicated to wiping out Israel. In addition, Abbas is pressing forward with a plan to ask the United Nations to formally recognize a Palestinian state in September.
Netanyahu complained about Obama’s proposal that Israel eventually withdraw all troops from the territory of a new Palestinian state. “We have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan” River, he said.
He also suggested that Obama should have been more direct with the Palestinians about a concession many experts say they will need to make to achieve peace: give up the claimed right of Palestinian families to return to their former homes in territory Israel would control in a peace deal.
“Everybody knows that not going to happen, and I think it’s time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it’s not going to happen,” the Israeli prime minister said as he sat next to Obama.