The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, publicly and unabashedly berated President Barack Obama yesterday for suggesting in a speech on Thursday that his country's 1967 borders should be the basis of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Those lines, he forcefully asserted, would make his nation "indefensible".
Any artifice of unity between the leaders evaporated when they came before the television cameras at the White House to report on their talks. In his statement, Mr Obama did not actually mention the 1967 borders. But the Israeli leader followed with a passionate denunciation of the proposal. Israel and he wanted peace, he said, but not one that would not endure. In his agitation, he spoke directly to Mr Obama as if the cameras weren't there.
"Peace based on illusions will crash eventually on the rocks of Middle East reality," Mr Netanyahu told the American President, who at times leaned away from his guest, his chin in his hand. He recalled that before the 1967 war, when Israeli forces seized Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel was "all of nine miles wide". He chided: "These were not the boundaries of peace. They were the boundaries of repeated wars."
While Mr Obama insisted that the upheavals of the Arab Spring meant movement towards a peace settlement was more urgent than ever, both men acknowledged that Fatah's embrace of the Hamas movement in a new unity government among Palestinians was a problem. Mr Netanyahu said that negotiating with Hamas at the table was out of the question. The Palestinians would have to choose between peace and Hamas, he said.
Normally if leaders fight in private, the public time they have is dedicated to concealing the fact. Mr Obama suggested that there are always disputes "between friends", and Mr Netanyahu said Israel would make concessions – just not those ones. But in the end, the crackle of dispute at the White House was too loud to muffle. That may bode ill for the already-ailing peace process.
Even as the meetings at the White House were under way, the so-called Quartet for Middle East Peace, which comprises the United Nations, the European Union and Russia as well as the United States, issued a strong endorsement of the 1967 borders vision set out by Mr Obama as part of a wide-ranging speech on the Middle East delivered two days ago at the State Department.
The Quartet, headed by its special envoy and Britain's former prime minister Tony Blair, said the way forward outlined by Mr Obama gave "a foundation for Israelis and Palestinians to reach a final resolution of the conflict through serious and substantive negotiations and mutual agreement on all core issues". It urged Israel and the Palestinians "to overcome the current obstacles and resume direct negotiations and mutual agreement on all core issues".
Mr Obama came under scorching attack from Republicans after his State Department speech on Thursday. Mitt Romney, who leads the loosely formed field of possible Republican challengers in next year's presidential race, said Mr Obama had "thrown Israel under the bus" by speaking of the pre-1967 borders.
But the criticism was harshest from Mr Netanyahu and his entourage. As they crossed the Atlantic to Washington overnight on Thursday, officials with the Prime Minister suggested the White House had lost the plot. "There is a feeling that Washington does not understand the reality, doesn't understand what we face," an official on board the plane told reporters. Earlier, the Prime Minister said the 1967 lines would leave parts of his country "indefensible".
It emerged that Mr Netanyahu called Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, on Thursday morning just before Mr Obama's address, raging about the suggestion that it might include an endorsement of the 1967 borders as the basis of future negotiations with the Palestinians. Mr Obama stood his ground, however, and the speech, meant also to align American with the forces of the Arab Spring, was delivered unchanged.
The two leaders were confronted not only with the reality of their own worsening relationship but with the knowledge that the fast-changing political landscape across the Middle East means their search for a peaceful solution has become more complicated than ever. In addition, there is the looming diplomatic pile-up of the Palestinians seeking a vote at the United Nations this September that would grant them statehood.
There remains very little doubt that the US will acquiesce to Israeli demands that it veto any such move should it come before the Security Council. Washington will also be under pressure to apply its diplomatic might on its allies in Europe, including Britain, to join it in blocking a statehood resolution. Whether Washington will do so – and how the European allies would react – is altogether less certain, however.
In reality, Mr Obama did not stick his neck out all that far. Even if he went further than any other US president in articulating the 1967 borders as the basis for a settlement, that has more or less been American policy for decades. And his statement on Thursday was more nuanced. "We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps" of land, he said. In other words, Mr Obama conceded that some modifications of those borders to take account of Israeli settlements would have to be negotiated.
Barack Obama's speech was arguably the opening salvo in a bizarre diplomatic episode that underscores the growing animosity between the US president and his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu.
It has become clear that the men share little personal chemistry, the right-wing Israeli premier more at home with the Republican Party, which is generally more supportive of Israel's demands vis-à-vis the Palestinians. As one Israeli official put it to state radio, the Obama administration "fails to understand reality". Mr Obama, on the other hand, "sees [Mr Netanyahu] as a con man and an obstacle – a kind of big speed bump on his way to solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem," Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to the US on Arab-Israeli negotiations, wrote in Foreign Policy. Even the timing of Thursday's speech was telling.
The White House scrambled to put together the key speech weeks earlier than planned after learning that Mr Netanyahu had nipped in first by requesting an invitation to address the US Congress next week. In doing so, he could check Mr Obama and pre-empt any peace proposals coming out of Washington.
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