Heading to Washington, Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu knew his task was a tricky one, with the stalled peace process far from the only challenge.
He would also have to deal with one of the deepest divides in years with Israel’s closest ally. The problem? His host President Obama’s vision of a future Palestinian state largely drawn along lines existing before the 1967 war.
“Israel cannot go back to the 1967 lines because these lines are indefensible, because 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,” Netanyahu told Obama in the Oval Office of the White House.
America’s powerful Jewish lobby was also outraged by President Obama’s proposals although he later made clear that Israel would likely be able to negotiate keeping some settlements.
“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” Obama said.
Going back to Israel’s pre-1967 borders would mean giving up the West Bank and East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. Eventually, Israel would also be forced to hand over the water-rich Golan Heights to Syria.
Yet, today, around 500,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, behind Israel’s pre-1967 borders. As for the demographics, the growing Israeli Arab and Palestinian populations are also part of the complex mix when it comes to any final agreement.
Some claim Netanyahu is seeking to buy time, hoping turbulence in the Arab world will divert US attention from the peace process.
Never likely to be known as a dove, from his first mandate in 1996, the Israeli leader rejected the Oslo Accords. More recently, the Obama White House was angered when Netanyahu refused a US demand to halt Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.
Netanyahu, who heads a right-leaning coalition, is under pressure at home to stand his ground.
For Obama, picking a fight with Israel could be politically risky as he seeks re-election next year.