In London, Obama changes tone, stance on Israel

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barrack Obama used his London press conference today to rewrite his politically damaging speeches on the Arab-Israeli stand-off by raising his emphasis on the need for Arabs to recognize the legitimacy of Israel’s existence.

“Hamas… has not renounced violence and has not recognized the state of Israel,” he told reporters this morning at a joint-press conference with the U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron. ”Until they do, it is very difficult to expect the Israelis to have a serious conversation, because ultimately they have to have confidence that the Palestinian state is going to stick to whatever bargain is struck,” he said.

The president also sidelined the related demand by Arabs that the million-plus descendants of Arabs who fled amid the multi-national Arab attack on Israel in 1948 should have a “right of return” to their ancestors’ abandoned property in Israel. Israelis and the Arabs can “have a difficult conversation about refugees … [but] that is not something any party on the outside is going to be able to impose,” he said.

The press statement was a sharp reversal in tone from the president’s May 19 statement of Middle East policy, and his May 22 speech at the American Israel Political Action Committee’s annual meeting in Washington D.C.

Both speeches aroused strong opposition from Israel’s backers — including many GOP legislators and social-conservative activists — and from many influential pro-Israel advocates within the Democratic Party. The opposition was demonstrated May 25, when legislators repeatedly applauded Israeli’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as he repeatedly countered Obama’s policy in a speech to the Senate and House of Representatives. The pushback from Israel’s supporters in the Jewish community has also prompted top-level Democratic politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to distance themselves from Obama’s policy statements.

The words ‘recognition’ and ‘refugee’ did not appear in President Obama’s AIPAC speech, even though they’re central elements of the Arabs’ refusal to accept the return of a Jewish-led state on territory captured by a Muslim Arab army more than 1,300 years ago.

Obama’s May 19 speech did refer to the disagreement over recognition, but put far more emphasis on his call for the Israelis to first accept a border that roughly matches the ceasefire line that lasted from 1948 to 1967, even before Israel’s Arab enemies concede on the more fundamental disputes over recognition and refugees, and control over Jerusalem.

“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states… moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues [of recognition and Jerusalem] in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians,” he said in the controversial May 19 speech.

The 1948 borders lasted until the 1967 war, when Israeli forces captured their capital city of Jerusalem and the surrounding hill-territory west of the Jordan river, which was then occupied by the state of Jordan. That territory, dubbed ‘the West Bank,’ is still mostly populated by Arabs, few of whom are willing to recognize Israel, to give up hope of regaining property in Israel, or to accept Israeli control over Jerusalem.

Obama’s short London statement, however, cited the issue of recognition four times. “My goal, as I said in the speech I gave last week, is a Jewish state of Israel that is safe and secure and recognized by its neighbors… Hamas is an organization that has thus far rejected the recognition of Israel as a legitimate state… [it] has not renounced violence and has not recognized the state of Israel… [and] it will be very difficult to get Israel a Palestinian partner on the other side of the table if [Hamas] is not observing the basic principles that we believe in — the need to renounce violence, to recognize the state of Israel, to abide by previous agreements,” he said.

His statement also included a warning for Arab advocates, whose negotiators declared after the May 19 and 22 speeches that negotiations could not restart until Israel agreed to Obama’s call for the modified 1967 border. “So, as much as it’s important for the United States, as Israel’s closest friend and partner, to remind them of the urgency of achieving peace, I don’t want the Palestinians to forget that they have obligations as well…That is, I think, going to be a critical aspect of us being able to jump-start this process once again.”