WASHINGTON: Israel said the United States "does not understand reality" as its leader arrived in Washington on Friday after President Barack Obama endorsed a longstanding Palestinian demand on borders of a future state.
In a policy speech on the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit, Obama laid down his clearest markers yet on the compromises he believes Israel and the Palestinians must make to resolve the decades-old conflict.
Obama embraced the Palestinian view that the state they seek in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip should largely be drawn along lines that existed before the 1967 war in which Israel captured those territories and East Jerusalem.
The right-wing 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 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 neighboring countries.
Asked why he gave such a strong rebuttal to Obama’s remarks, Netanyahu told reporters on board his plane: "There are things that can’t be swept under the carpet."
Israel has also underlined its position by announcing the approval of plans to build 1,550 housing units in two Jewish settlements on annexed West Bank land around Jerusalem.
Obama’s first outright declaration of his stance on the issue of borders could help ease doubts in the Arab world about his commitment to acting as an even-handed broker.
But the prospect of any significant progress to revive long-stalled peace talks, which the White House talks had anyway not been expected to deliver, seemed dimmer than ever.
A round of talks brokered by Washington at Obama’s initiative collapsed last year when Netanyahu refused to extend a moratorium on Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank and Abbas refused to carry on negotiations.
There was no word on whether Netanyahu, who heads a right-leaning, pro-settler coalition, had been forewarned of the content of Obama’s speech.
Israeli officials appeared especially taken aback by his blunt language, including criticism of "settlement activity" and its continued occupation of Arab lands.
"The viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of Israel’s existence," Netanyahu said in a statement.
He said he expected to hear "a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004" — an allusion to a letter by then president George W. Bush suggesting the Jewish state may keep big settlement blocs under a peace pact.
Netanyahu has also said he would want to keep Israeli forces in the valley that divides the West Bank from Jordan even after any establishment of a Palestinian state. And he rejects any discussion of giving up Israeli control of East Jerusalem.
Despite the tensions, Obama carved out three hours for Netanyahu on Friday, including a working lunch. Visits have not always gone smoothly, however. –Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Ori Lewis and Nidal Al-Mughrabi