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Netanyahu, Obama Meet Amid Disagreement on Path to Middle East Peace

May 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: They shook hands and played down disagreements, but there were clear tensions at today’s Obama-Netanyahu meeting. The head-to-head at the White House followed the president’s Middle East speech a day earlier.

President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu shared a few brief smiles for reporters after a lengthy session behind closed doors in the Oval Office.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And I reiterated and we discussed in depth the principles that I laid out yesterday, the belief that our ultimate goal has to be a secure Israeli state, a Jewish state living side-by-side in peace and security with a contiguous, functioning and effective Palestinian state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president had raised Israeli hackles on Thursday, when he directly endorsed a key Palestinian demand, for peace negotiations to be based on a return to 1967 borders. That’s before Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in the Six Day War.

He also called for land swaps with the Palestinians to compensate for disputed areas. The president didn’t mention the 1967 borders today, but Netanyahu did. And, as yesterday, he rejected the idea.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israeli prime minister: The first is that while Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines, because these — these lines are indefensible.

Remember that, before 1967, Israel was all of nine-miles-wide. It was half the width of the Washington Beltway. And these were not the boundaries of peace. They were the boundaries of repeated wars, because the attack on Israel was so attractive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, the prime minister said he valued the president’s efforts toward making peace.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Israel wants peace. I want peace. What we all want is a peace that will be genuine, that will hold, that will endure. And I think that the — we both agree that a peace based on illusions will crash eventually.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Netanyahu acknowledged he and the president may have differences here and there. And Mr. Obama agreed.

BARACK OBAMA: Obviously, there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language, and that’s going to happen between friends. But what we are in complete accord about is that a true peace can only occur if the ultimate resolution allows Israel to defend itself against threats.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MITT ROMNEY (R), former Massachusetts governor: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Israelis weren’t the only ones to complain about the president’s 1967 border reference. Republican presidential candidates joined in, Mitt Romney saying the president had — quote — “thrown Israel under the bus.”

The border issue was put in stark relief last weekend, when Arab protesters stormed Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon, and Israeli troops opened fire. And today, there were new clashes in Gaza and the West Bank between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli forces. At least one person was wounded.

This afternoon, the other members of the Middle East Quartet, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia, announced they strongly support the U.S. vision for achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, more than two dozen protesters were killed in Syria today, as the government there continued a bloody crackdown. Thousands of people took to the streets once again after Friday prayers in at least half-a-dozen towns and cities around the country.

Activists said security forces opened fire and killed demonstrators in Maarrat al-Numan and in Homs. The new violence came just two days after the U.S. imposed new sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other key leaders. Yesterday, President Obama had warned that Assad must lead the transition toward democracy, or get out of the way.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh ignored his earlier promise to sign a deal to step down. Instead, at a government rally, he called for early presidential elections, but didn’t set a date for them to take place.