WASHINGTON - President Obama defended his endorsement of Israel's 1967 boundaries as the basis for a future Palestine, telling America's pro-Israel lobby yesterday that his views reflected longstanding U.S. policy that needed to be stated clearly.
He also said the Jewish state will face growing isolation without "a credible peace process."
Obama tried to alleviate concerns that his administration was veering in a pro-Palestinian direction, placing his Mideast policy speech Thursday in the context of Israel's security. He told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that those border lines must be subject to negotiated land swaps and said these principles reflected U.S. thinking dating to President Bill Clinton's mediation efforts.
"If there's a controversy, then it's not based in substance," Obama said in a well-received speech. "What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately. I have done so because we cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace."
The event was eagerly anticipated after Obama outlined his vision for the changing Middle East at the State Department on Thursday and then clashed in a White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a day later.
Netanyahu said in a statement after Obama's remarks that he supported the president's desire to advance peace and resolved to work with him to find ways to renew the negotiations. "Peace is a vital need for us all," Netanyahu said.
The Israeli leader's tone was far more reserved than last week, when he issued an impassioned rejection of the 1967 borders as "indefensible" and even appeared to publicly admonish Obama after their White House meeting.
Obama didn't retreat from his remarks on what it would take to reach a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Repeating a large section of his Thursday speech, he said the result must come through negotiation, and said Israeli border security and protections from acts of terrorism must be ensured. An Israeli withdrawal from territory should be followed by Palestinians' responsibility for security in a nonmilitarized state.
"By definition, it means that the parties themselves - Israelis and Palestinians - will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967," Obama said. That was before Israel seized the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and a half-million Israelis settled on war-won lands.
"It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation," the president said. "It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides."