The most powerful Democrat in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), on Monday night publicly rejected President Barack Obama’s decision to use a recent speech to lay out aspects of a potential peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
“The place where negotiating will happen must be at the negotiating table – and nowhere else,” Reid declared in a speech to an annual gathering in Washington of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “Those negotiations … will not happen – and their terms will not be set – through speeches, or in the streets, or in the media.”
When the Senate leader added, “No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building, or about anything else,” the lights quickly came up on the vast audience and most in the crowd at the Washington Convention Center rose to their feet and applauded.
Among the thousands attending the AIPAC event, controversy is still swirling over Obama’s public suggestion last Thursday that Israel’s pre-1967 borders be the starting point for negotiations with the Palestinians. In his speech last week addressing the democracy movements roiling the Middle East and North Africa, Obama also suggested that Israel withdraw from Palestinian territory in phases, that Israel eventually withdraw all troops from the West Bank, and that the issues of Jerusalem and the right of return claimed by Palestinians be deferred until border and security issues are resolved.
Obama said in a speech to the same AIPAC conference on Sunday that his formulation did not suggest that Israel return to its outlines before the 1967 war. He noted that in last week's speech he mentioned that negotiations would produce “mutually agreed swaps” that would alter those borders - and that any Palestinian state would have to be demilitarized.
“If there is a controversy, then, it’s not based in substance,” Obama said Sunday, adding, “What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately.”
Nevertheless, Reid made clear Monday that he viewed it as unfair to ask Israel to return to its contours before the Six-Day War, when Israel conquered territory from Jordan, Egypt and Syria.
“A fair beginning to good-faith talks means that Israel cannot be asked to agree to confines that would compromise its own security,” Reid stated. He also seemed to suggest a limited role for the United States in any peace talks.
“The parties that should lead these negotiations should be the parties at the center of this conflict – and no one else,” Reid said.
A White House spokesman had no immediate response to a request for comment on Reid’s remarks.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to AIPAC later Monday night and repeated his stance that the pre-1967 borders were unacceptable to Israel.
“Israel cannot return to the indefensible 1967 lines,” Netanyahu declared. The Israeli leader said he would use his speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday morning to elaborate on his view of a peace deal with the Palestinians.
“I will …outline a vision for a secure Israeli-Palestinian peace,” Netanyahu said. He did not criticize Obama directly, but did seem to align himself with those who faulted the U.S. president for using imprecise and confusing language in his speech last week.
“I intend to speak the unvarnished truth because now more than ever what we need is clarity,” the Israeli leader said.
Netanyahu praised Obama and congressional leaders for backing defense aid to Israel in tough economic times. The Israeli leader also blamed the Palestinians for the failure to achieve a peace deal during the 63 years of Israel’s existence.
“We want peace because we know the pain of terror and we know the agony of war. We want peace because we know the blessings peace could bring to use and our Palestinian neighbors,” the prime minister said. “If we hope to advance peace with the Palestinians, it’s time that we admitted another truth: This conflict has raged for more than half a century because the Palestinians refused to end it. They refused to accept the Jewish state.”
Speaking to delegates earlier in the evening, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) seemed intent on not wading into the fray over Obama’s comments on Israel’s borders. Boehner said little about the specifics in the outline Obama offered in recent days for aspects of a possible peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Instead, the House speaker talked largely in generalities about the need for the U.S. to be steadfast in support for Israel.
“Some people complain that the United States is too pro-Israel. Let me tell you what I think: Doubts about what America stands for – and who America stands with – slow the search for peace and stability,” Boehner declared.
“The president and the Congress should work together so that the American people —and our friends, and yes, our enemies— understand our national security policies and our goals. And so that our allies, allies like Israel, have no cause to doubt that we will be with them through thick and thin,” he added.
While Boehner never mentioned the Palestinians by name, calling them simply “the other side” from Israel, he referred to Fatah’s recent power-sharing deal with Hamas as a signal that the Palestinian leadership isn’t serious about peace.
“When it embraces a terrorist organization, I think it makes its intentions known,” Boehner said. “You know, where I come from, you’re judged by the company you keep.”
Reid also warned that the Palestinian Authority faces a cutoff of U.S. assistance if Fatah moves forward with the power-sharing accord it announced last month with Hamas, which controls Gaza but is committed to the destruction of Israel and is considered a terrorist group by the United States and Israel.
“The United States of America will not give money to terrorists bent on the destruction of the State of Israel. If the Palestinian government insists on including Hamas, the United States will continue to insist that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist, that it renounce violence, and that it honor the commitments made by prior Palestinian Authority governments,” Reid said in his speech, which, at 27 minutes, clocked in one minute shy of Netanyahu’s.
While Boehner refrained from criticizing Obama’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the speaker did take some shots at Obama for retreating from President George W. Bush’s public commitment to promote democracy abroad.
“We should make it clear—and clearer than it has been for the last two years—that America is on the side of those who yearn and struggle for their freedom. That is our historic and moral responsibility as a great, free nation and we should never apologize or be ashamed of that role that we play in the world,” Boehner declared.
Boehner also suggested that the Obama team was taking tougher action to promote democracy than to head off nuclear threats to the United States.
“No doubt the regime in Tehran has taken notice of how the United States has responded to Libya — versus how it has responded to North Korea,” Boehner said.
Netanyahu’s speech was interrupted at least five times by demonstrators who were quickly escorted out of the cavernous hall. The crowd responded with applause and by chanting Netanyahu’s nickname: “Bibi! Bibi!”
“Do you think they have these protests in Gaza?” Netanyahu quipped after one of the outbursts.
The Gazette now offers Facebook Comments on its stories. You must be logged into your Facebook account to add comments. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal page, uncheck the box below the comment. Comments deemed offensive by the moderators will be removed, and commenters who persist may be banned from commenting on the site.