Israeli-U.S. relations unclear

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on May 20, 2011 in Washington, DC. UPI/Martin H. Simon/POOL
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on May 20, 2011 in Washington, DC. UPI/Martin H. Simon/POOL | License Photo

WASHINGTON, May 23 (UPI) -- With two high-profile speeches and a testy and embarrassing White House meeting behind them, U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's strained relationship has never been more public.

Obama, speaking Sunday to 10,000 pro-Israel supporters at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference, asserted that any peace process between Israel and Palestinians hinges on 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps, a phrase he said was "misrepresented several times."


"It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation." Obama said. "It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years."

On Friday, Netanyahu characterized the 1967 borders as "indefensible" but, after Obama's AIPAC address, he pledged to work with the president to "find ways to resume the peace negotiations."

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Obama re-emphasized his belief that the status quo is unsustainable in the region, citing the growing Palestinian population in the West Bank and the tide of unrest sweeping the region. He also described the U.S.-Israeli relationship as "ironclad."

Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Middle East negotiator for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, said he can't recall a more public disagreement between the nation's leaders.

"I understand Netanyahu is upset, I understand he was surprised. I think he [Netanyahu] took it too far," Miller said.

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Miller said former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin used to lecture President Jimmy Carter "but it was done privately."

Israeli prime ministers sleep with one eye open, Miller said, because of the security threats and ingrained psyche of the country. He said Netanyahu "sleeps with two eyes open when it comes to Obama."

"He does not trust the president," Miller said.

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Their relationship started off in the fall of 2009 on a difficult note, with a showdown over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. Netanyahu prevailed. Miller said Obama's stance on Israel differs from Clinton and George W. Bush, who were "in love with the idea of Israel."

Miller characterized Obama's recent public appearances as reminders that he cares about the peace process but the 1967 border issue, a long-held private negotiating chip, is now presidential policy. He said the two leaders have an understanding about some issues, like Iran but are still trying to find common ground on negotiating peace.

"This is just Round 7 in a multi-round boxing match," Miller.

U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., addressed AIPAC immediately before Obama and seemed to offer a much different stance than the president.

"Peace can only be achieved by a return to the negotiating table without preconditions," Hoyer said.

Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and vice president of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said in a roundtable Sunday that Obama's remarks touched on a hot-button Israeli issue. Obama called on Hamas to denounce violence, recognize Israel and acknowledge all existing agreements.

Indyk cautioned that Israeli supporters who wanted more specific policies from Obama about a peace deal should be concerned.

"You sure wouldn't like what he would say about Jerusalem," Indyk said.

In remarks Monday, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr said Netanyahu is "ready, willing and able" to start the peace process again.

Kohr blamed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for bad decisions.

"There is still time for a Palestinian leader to be bold and creative, to turn back from the current dead end, to reject Hamas, to reject the international path," he said.

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