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Obama Addresses Questions About Mideast Peace Approach

President Barack Obama receives applause as he speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention in Washington Sunday, May 22, 2011
President Barack Obama receives applause as he speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention in Washington Sunday, May 22, 2011

Speaking on Sunday to the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States, President Barack Obama has addressed what he called questions raised about his remarks last week concerning the Israel-Palestinian peace process.  

The president spoke in Washington to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee amid continuing reverberations in Israel, the United States and globally from his address last week on the Middle East.

Mr. Obama said his remarks last Thursday enunciating the U.S. position on a starting point for reviving Israel-Palestinian negotiations constituted the "basic framework for negotiations that has long been the basis for discussions among the parties".

The president addressed what he called "misinterpretations" of his address at the State Department. "Since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” means.   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.  That is what mutually agreed upon swaps means.  It is a well known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation.  It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years," he said.

Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who met with Mr. Obama on Friday, angrily rejected the approach saying 1967 lines would make Israeli settlements "indefensible".

Mr. Netanyahu, who remains in Washington and will address the pro-Israel lobby group on Monday, has since sought to downplay what media reports describe as a worsened rift with Mr. Obama, saying Saturday that there will be differences among friends.

Saying he was not surprised that his public statement of these principles generated controversy, Mr. Obama said he discussed with Mr. Netanyahu "realities",  including demographic changes, in the Middle East.

"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 world is moving too fast.  The extraordinary challenges facing Israel will only grow.  Delay will undermine Israel’s security and the peace that the Israeli people deserve," he said.

The president again rejected Palestinian attempts to de-legitimize Israel.  Palestinian leaders intend to seek U.N. General Assembly recognition of a Palestinian state in September.

Mr. Obama said the unity agreement between Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah poses "enormous obstacles" to peace and went on to demand that Hamas recognize Israel's right to exist. "No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction.   And we will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace, including recognizing Israel’s right to exist,  and rejecting violence, and adhering to all existing agreements," he said.

The president reiterated his view of the status quo in Israel-Palestinian peace efforts as "unsustainable". "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.  And for us to have leverage with the Palestinians, to have leverage with the Arab States, and with the international community, the basis for negotiations has to hold out the prospect of success," he said.

Fatah spokesman Saeb Erekat was quoted as saying talks with Israel could resume that would lead to a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, but said without Prime Minister Netanyahu's agreement to "turn over a new leaf" there would be no point talking about a peace process.

President Obama also underscored the "ironclad" U.S. commitment to Israel's security and maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge, noting U.S. aid for Israel's new "Iron Dome" anti-missile system that defends against Palestinian rocket attacks.

He also repeated U.S. determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, noting U.S. and United Nations sanctions, and said Iran continues to "support terrorism across the region" including providing weapons and funds to terrorist organizations."   

Mr. Obama said the Middle East situation will be what he called "a topic of acute interest this week during his five day trip to Europe, which begins in Ireland and Britain, and moves to France for the G8 summit, followed by Poland.

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