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It's not all bad for Israel's Netanyahu in wake of Obama's 1967-border speech

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference in his office in Jerusalem, Wednesday, May 18, 2011.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

In his meeting today with U.S. President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to grouse about the U.S. leader's endorsement of Israel's pre-1967 borders as the basis for delineating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

"The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps," Mr. Obama said in a major policy speech at the State Department in Washington on Thursday.

The "swaps" would allow Israel to retain its major settlement blocs constructed in the West Bank in exchange for giving a Palestinian state a roughly equivalent part of Israeli territory.

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Thursday, the infuriated, Israeli PM rejected any "full and complete return" to the pre-1967 frontiers, citing "new realities on the ground," by which he means the sprawling Jewish suburbs ranging east of Jerusalem and scattered settlements occupying strategic points throughout the West Bank. Israel defeated Arab nations in 1967, seizing Gaza, Old Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

Before departing Israel Thursday night, Mr. Netanyahu said he expected the U.S. President to adhere to a 2004 commitment given by U.S. president George W. Bush to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon that Israel would not be asked to withdraw to 1967 boundaries.

Those commitments, however, also endorse the idea of land swaps to take into account both sides' needs, much as Mr. Obama stated.

The right-wing Mr. Netanyahu, who has had strained relations with the Democrat Obama, reacted by saying in a statement that this could leave Israel with borders that were "indefensible."

"There is a feeling that Washington does not understand the reality, doesn't understand what we face," an official on board the plane taking Mr. Netanyahu to Washington told reporters.

"The prime minister's tough response expresses the disappointment with the absence of central issues that Israel demanded, chiefly the refugee (issue)," he added. Israel says it cannot accept a Palestinian demand to give millions of refugees the right to return from neighbouring countries.

But while the Israeli leadership is upset by the 1967 principle, there are several things in Mr. Obama's speech that should please them.

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Most significantly, the President scorned the Palestinian initiative to win recognition of statehood at the United Nations in September, and indicated the United States would protect Israel from being singled out at the international forum.

Mr. Obama also criticized the reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, saying that Hamas would have to recognize Israel if there is to be a peace process.

And he said that the difficult issues of refugees and the status of Jerusalem should be left until borders and security arrangements are agreed on by the parties.

"These points came straight out of the policy pages of the Prime Minister's Bureau in Jerusalem," said Aluf Benn, editor at large of the Haartez newspaper. "Netanyahu could not have asked for more."

With files from Reuters

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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