Obama warns Israel patience is running out over progress on peace
Barack Obama ratcheted up the pressure on Israel for a breakthrough in the peace process yesterday, warning that the country faces international isolation and a gathering threat to its security if there is no movement to resolve the Palestinian conflict.
The President made no move to soften his stance when he spoke to America's largest Jewish lobby group, despite the furore since he called last week for Israel's pre-1967 borders to form the basis for a peace deal.
The new US push for a peace deal had threatened to provoke a diplomatic rupture between Israel and its staunchest ally, and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave President Obama an unprecedented public dressing down in a joint press conference in the White House the next day, telling him that the 1967 borders were "indefensible" and that progress in peace talks depended on movement on the Palestinian side.
The speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee yesterday amounted to a counter-argument by President Obama. He said there will be "acute interest" in the Middle Eastern peace process when he meets with European leaders this week, and international patience with Israel was running out. European countries are being joined by new powers in Latin America and Asia, he said, who are sympathetic to Palestinian attempts to involve the United Nations in an attempt to isolate Israel.
"The march to isolate Israel internationally – and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations – will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative," he said.
White House officials had been nervous about the reception President Obama might face at Aipac in light of the diplomatic row, but in the end he was warmly received and repeatedly cheered when he asserted lasting bonds of friendship between the US and Israel and non-negotiable support for Israeli security.
Some in the hall did claim to hear boos when the President reiterated his support for a Palestinian state. But overall the mood was conciliatory, even if President Obama did not budge from the message of his remarks last week. The two speeches, bookending Mr Netanyahu's press conference appearance, have provided an extraordinary glimpse at the back-and-forth debate that normally occurs only behind closed diplomatic doors.
The President argued yesterday that the Arab Spring uprisings meant that Israel could no longer rely on alliances with a handful of dictators to protect itself, but rather must strike a peace deal that would neuter anti-Israel sentiment across the region.
He said that his reference to the 1967 borders amounted to no more than a restatement of long-standing US policy. "Let me repeat what I actually said on Thursday, not what I was reported to have said ... The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines – with mutually agreed swaps." The inclusion of mutually agreed swaps, to reflect demographic changes has been US policy "since the Clinton administration", he said.
The Israelis also moved to cool the tone, before Mr Netanyahu addresses the Aipac conference this evening. "The reports of a disagreement have been blown way out of proportion," the Prime Minister was quoted as saying. "It's true we have some differences of opinion, but these are among friends."
Mr Netanyahu had been told that the President would make reference to the 1967 borders 24 hours before making his speech last week, and had fought in an angry phone call to have the reference dropped.