President Obama Counters Criticism on Middle East

Obama clarifies his position on Israel-Palestine conflict.

By + More

Responding to attacks on his much-promoted speech last week on the Middle East, President Obama defended his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict yesterday in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual conference. Repeating parts of his earlier speech at the State Department nearly word for word, the president told the pro-Israel lobby what experts pointed out Thursday: that his policy in the Middle East isn't all that different from regional policies of his presidential predecessors.

"There was nothing particularly original in my proposal," he said. "This basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations." [

The president explained that starting negotiations based on the pre-1967 borders between Israel and Palestine and including mutually agreed land swaps would give both Israel and the Palestinians the opportunity to establish "secure and recognized borders." Obama said that the policy "means that the parties themselves—Israelis and Palestinians—will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. It is a well known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides." [Check out editorial cartoons about the "Arab Spring" uprisings.]

Though Obama's border stance sparked criticism from advocates of Israel last week, the thousands of pro-Israel supporters in the AIPAC audience appeared largely pleased with the president. "We appreciate his statement that the U.S. does not expect Israel to withdraw to the boundaries that existed between Israel and Jordan in 1967 before the Six Day War," said AIPAC spokesman Ari Goldberg in a statement later that afternoon.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had called the 1967 borders "indefensible" after meeting with the president late last week, explaining that "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." However, as Obama directly clarified that he indeed supports the consideration of changes since 1967, Netanyahu may be less critical of the president's policy. He speaks to the conference later today before addressing Congress Tuesday.

The AIPAC crowd also responded enthusiastically to the president's refusal to support the creation of an independent Palestinian state that does not recognize Israel. "No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state. And the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the UN or in any international forum. Because Israel's legitimacy is not a matter for debate," he said.

Another highlight for the pro-Israel gathering was Obama's firm position on Iran. He emphasized that the United States has imposed the "toughest sanctions ever" on the Iranian regime. "Let me be absolutely clear—we remain committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons," he said.

The president now is on a five-day trip to Europe, where the Middle East will be on the agenda in talks with European leaders.