President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent most of the afternoon in discussions on Friday, after which Netanyahu told his staff that he felt better about the U.S.-Israeli relationship than when he went in.
“Look, I went into the meeting with concerns and I came out of the meeting encouraged,” Netanyahu said after emerging from the marathon session at the White House, according to one Israeli official who was part of Netanyahu’s briefing.
The meeting went on so long that the working lunch that Obama and Netanyahu had scheduled with their respective staffs was cancelled; the two leaders had food brought in, and the other officials and staffers went to eat on their own. The U.S. officials present included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, NSC Senior Director Dennis Ross, incoming Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, and the State Department’s Acting Middle East Envoy David Hale.
But there was some disagreement between the two leaders. In Obama and Netanyahu’s public remarks following the meeting, the Israeli prime minister declared that Israel “cannot go back to the 1967 lines — because these lines are indefensible.” The Israeli official insisted that Netanyahu was not lecturing Obama in his statement, but simply felt it necessary to publicly state clear Israeli positions on major issues.
“This is not a personal issue,” the Israeli official said. “[H]e wanted to go on record in public and state what Israel’s red lines are, what is imperative for Israel’s security needs.”
Those red lines include that Israel cannot accept a return to negotiations based on the 1967 lines, as Obama said was U.S. policy on Thursday; Israel cannot accept the return of Palestinian refugees; and Israel cannot negotiate with any government that includes the participation of Hamas.
Netanyahu called Clinton on Thursday morning, prior to Obama’s address on U.S. policy toward the Middle East, to try to convince her to take the contentious lines out of his speech. The official described it as a “tough conversation.”
But there was also a lot of agreement inside the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. The two leaders talked about Syria, Iran, and Israel’s defense needs. Obama tried to explain to why he decided to make his policy announcement about the 1967 borders on Thursday, and he clarified the U.S. position on Hamas and the Palestinian right of return, where there is largely bilateral agreement.
On a conference call with Jewish leaders on Thursday, a recording of which was provided to The Cable, National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes also tried to clarify Obama’s remarks.
“The president reiterated our support for core principles and he also stated the U.S. position on issues of territory and security that can be the foundation for future negotiations, specifically a Palestinian state based on 1967 lines with swaps,” he said. “It can provide a basis for negotiations as the parties address security and territory as well as the very emotional issues of Jerusalem and refugees.”