In Oval Office, Bibi Offers History Lessons to Obama

May 20, 2011 3:44pm

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to think he needed to educate President Obama on some issues today, so in the Oval Office he described in some detail to the president a history of the refugee problem in the region dating back 63 years, as well as his view on the need for Israel to be able to defend itself in the context of thousands of years of Jewish suffering.

“We don’t have a lot of margin for error,” Netanyahu said to the president. “Because, Mr. President, history will not give the Jewish people another chance.”

Netanyahu, whose father is a retired academic, offered the president repeated history lessons, saying Jews have “been around for almost 4,000 years. We have experienced struggle and suffering like no other people. We’ve gone through expulsions and pogroms and massacres and the murder of millions. But I can say that even at the dearth of — even at the nadir of the valley of death, we never lost hope and we never lost our dream of reestablishing a sovereign state in our ancient homeland, the land of Israel.”

Yesterday, President Obama angered Netanyahu by — for the first time – stating as a matter of U.S. policy that “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.”

President Obama acknowledged this disagreement today, saying “obviously there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language, and that’s going to happen between friends.”

President Obama invited reporters into the Oval Office after he and Netanyahu had spoken one on one for more than an hour and a half. Their discussions went past the scheduled time allotted to the point that they canceled their working lunch.

Afterwards, the president spoke to reporters who had assembled in the Oval Office while Netanyahu addressed President Obama directly.

Netanyahu said that “while Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines, because these lines are indefensible, because they don’t take into account certain changes that have taken place on the ground, demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.”

In 1967, Netanyahu said, “Israel was all of 9 miles wide — half the width of the Washington Beltway… So we can’t go back to those indefensible lines, and we’re going to have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan.”

President Obama went on to reaffirm the U.S. belief that Israel needs to live in security, and he said Hamas, which is reconciling with the Palestinian West Bank ruling party Fatah, “is not a partner for a significant, realistic peace process. And so, as I said yesterday during the speech, the Palestinians are going to have to explain how they can credibly engage in serious peace negotiations in the absence of observing the Quartet principles that have been put forward previously.”

The Quartet principles include recognizing Israel’s right to exist, renouncing violence, and agreeing to abide by previous negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Netanyahu told President Obama that “Hamas has just attacked you, Mr. President, and the United States for ridding the world of bin Laden. So Israel obviously cannot be asked to negotiate with a government that is backed by the Palestinian version of al-Qaida.”

He also seemed concerned that President Obama had not asserted that the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants was a non-starter for Israel. In 2004, President George W. Bush in 2004 asserted that “(i)t seems clear that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.”

President Obama yesterday only referred to the fate of Palestinian refugees as a “wrenching and emotional” issue.

“Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities,” Netanyahu said. “The Palestinian refugee problem will have to be resolved in the context of a Palestinian state but certainly not in the borders of Israel.”

The Israeli prime minister provided some detail for the president: “The Arab attack in 1948 on Israel resulted in two refugee problems, Palestinian refugee problem and Jewish refugees, roughly the same number, who were expelled from Arab lands. Now tiny Israel absorbed the Jewish refugees, but the vast Arab world refused to absorb the Palestinian refugees. Now, 63 years later, the Palestinians come to us and they say to Israel: accept the grandchildren, really, and the great-grandchildren of these refugees, thereby wiping out Israel’s future as a Jewish state. So that’s not going to happen. Everybody knows it’s not going to happen. And I think it’s time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly, it’s not going to happen.”

Netanyahu said that any peace needs to “ensure Israel’s security and will not jeopardize its survival.”

UPDATE: A source close to Netanyahu says the prime minister wanted to say on record where Israel’s red lines are and that he offered the history lessons for the benefit of the world.

The meeting was cordial, the source said, and went better than expected. President Obama offered more of an explanation of his speech to Netanyahu, and today he also heard clearer language on Hamas and how the onus is on the Palestinians to end terrorism.

Of the three items that irked the prime minister in Obama’s speech, he chose, in public and private, to focus more on the two where there is more potential agreement – Hamas and the Palestinian refugee issue –- because the two just disagree on the 1967 lines controversy.

Per senior White House sources, one of the main reasons President Obama is trying to kick-start the peace process is to avoid a diplomatic crisis this fall.

If the Israelis and Palestinians return to the negotiating table, sources say there’s hope that the Palestinians would drop their bid to have a vote at the UN this September on their recognition as a state, which Israel opposes and which Obama has discouraged.

– Jake Tapper with Sunlen Miller, Ann Compton, Kirit Radia and Luis Martinez

 

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