ISRAELI PRIME Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hearing what he chose to hear when he objected to the principles for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that President Obama outlined in his recent speech on the Mideast. Netanyahu was doing what a seasoned politician will try to do: spin things to gain the maximum room to maneuver while pleasing his base and keeping domestic critics at bay. But Obama was right to say what he said. And the overall import of his speech was protective of Israel’s long-term interests.
“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,’’ Obama said. This has been the tacit presumption of every negotiating effort since the 1991 Madrid Conference. Netanyahu nonetheless called on Obama to reaffirm a 2004 letter in which former President George W. Bush told Israel’s prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.’’
But Obama’s principles and the Bush letter do not contradict each other. Obama did not say Israel must withdraw to the 1967 lines, but rather that Israel may absorb major settlements in exchange for other parcels it agrees to transfer to a Palestinian state.
What’s more, Obama sided with Israel on several key points. It was the Palestinians, he said, who “walked away from talks.’’ He warned that “efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure.’’ And he said Palestinians must give a credible answer to the question posed by the presence of Hamas in a unity government: “How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?’’
More than ever, Israel needs the security that can only come from a two-state peace agreement. Netanyahu would be acting in Israel’s interest if he welcomed Obama’s offer to help forge that peace.