WASHINGTON — In a public rebuke, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a White House appearance with President Barack Obama on Friday to flatly reject any suggestion that Israel might even consider withdrawing from territories it seized in the 1967 Six-Day War.
"While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines," Netanyahu said with Obama at his side, both seated in the Oval Office. "These lines are indefensible. ... 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,"
The president had called Thursday for new peace negotiations toward a Palestinian state to be based on Israel's 1967 borders, supplemented with voluntary land swaps and leaving questions about Jerusalem's status for the future. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had taken essentially the same position, though with different wording.
Netanyahu said the territory added since 1967 gave Israel a better chance to defend itself, and that any retreat would forfeit defensive positions against attack.
Never miss a local story.
"Remember that, before 1967, Israel was all of 9 miles wide. It was half the width of the Washington Beltway," he said. "These were not the boundaries of peace; they were the boundaries of repeated wars, because the attack on Israel was so attractive."
Moreover, Netanyahu made clear that he intends not only to maintain control of at least some of the seized territory in the West Bank of the Jordan River, but he also said he'd keep Israeli military there.
"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," he said.
Netanyahu addressed his remarks to the Palestinians. But with Obama's talk about the 1967 borders in his speech the day before, it was clear that the prime minister was reacting to the president. Obama stared blankly at Netanyahu as the prime minister spoke.
Despite Netanyahu's face-to-face rebuke — in the president's office and in front of the news media — Obama aides said that the president didn't propose that Israel simply withdraw to pre-1967 borders. They said he'd proposed only that the pre-1967 borders serve as an opening point for negotiations with the Palestinians, as long as any agreement included mutually agreed-on swaps of land.
"We believe 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," Obama said Thursday.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney also said that the idea of using the pre-1967 borders — also known as the borders set in 1949 — as a starting point for negotiations wasn't new. President Bill Clinton started from the same premise in trying to broker a peace deal in 2000.
In an April 2004 letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President George W. Bush suggested that the 1949-1967 borders were a starting point, but he also said that any final peace would be subject to agreements that would reflect Israel's settlements in some of the territory seized since 1967. "It is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiation will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949," Bush wrote.
In a 2005 news conference, Bush said that any "changes to the 1949 Armistice Lines must be mutually agreed to."
"Anybody who knows this issue knows that this has been an understood starting point," Carney said Friday.
Haim Malka, the deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that no one really thought that a final peace would re-establish the 1949-1967 borders.
"The president never said that Israel should go back to the 1967 border," Malka said.
He said the Israelis were upset because Obama "used different language than President Bush used to convey the same idea" in terms of mutually agreed swaps. "The Israelis wanted to hear language on the border issue similar to President Bush's," Malka said.
Malka said that Obama essentially said the same thing, only with different wording.
In his comments at the White House, Netanyahu also said that he could never negotiate with a Palestinian government that recently formed a coalition with the militant Islamist group Hamas, which doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist and which has been labeled a terrorist group.
Obama agreed, saying that, "it is very difficult for Israel to be expected to negotiate in a serious way with a party that refuses to acknowledge its right to exist. And so for that reason I think the Palestinians are going to have to answer some very difficult questions about this agreement that's been made between Fatah and Hamas."
On another point of long-standing friction between Palestinians and Israel, Netanyahu flatly rejected the Palestinian goal of winning Israel's permission to grant a "right of return" to the descendants of Palestinian Arabs who were expelled from Israel after the 1948 war.
"It's not going to happen. Everybody knows it's not going to happen," Netanyahu said, contending that it would destroy Israel's identity as a Jewish nation.
Obama called his 90-minute meeting with Netanyahu constructive, reiterating the close relationship between the countries.
"Obviously, there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language, and that's going to happen between friends," he said.
"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, and that Israel's security will remain paramount in U.S. evaluations of any prospective peace deal."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington