WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Sunday defended his call for Israel's pre-1967 borders — adjusted by land exchanges — to be the basis of an independent Palestine, saying the proposal is not new and warning the Jewish state that it faces growing isolation and insecurity without "credible" peace talks.
Obama used a speech to the most powerful pro-Israel U.S. lobbying group to respond to a storm of criticism by visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. lawmakers. They claim that the president's proposal, made Thursday in a major policy address, would endanger Israel's security by forcing it to accept narrower, indefensible borders.
Accusing critics of misrepresenting his position, Obama explained that "mutually agreed-upon swaps" of land meant negotiating a border "that is different" than the lines that existed before Israel seized Palestinian territories in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war so that "secure and recognized borders are established for both states."
"That's what mutually agreed-upon swaps means," Obama told the 10,000-strong audience of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual conference. "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."
There would also have to be provisions to protect Israel from terrorism and ensure its security, and phased withdrawals of Israeli security forces from Palestinian land would have to be "coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign and non-militarized state," he said.
"The ultimate goal is two states: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people," said Obama, who was largely warmly received. "If there is controversy, then, it's not based in substance."
Netanyahu, who publicly rebuked Obama during a meeting on Friday at the White House, and other critics have omitted Obama's reference to "agreed-upon" land swaps in attacking his statement.
Obama delivered his speech just before departing on a six-day European tour in which Israeli-Palestinian peace and the turmoil rocking the Middle East are expected to figure prominently.
Returning to a key theme of Thursday's policy address, Obama said that time is running out to restart stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as the Arab protest movements shaking the region upend long-ruling despots who've smothered popular support for the Palestinian cause.
"A new generation of Arabs is reshaping the region" in a way that could threaten the separate peace accords Israel made with Egypt and Jordan, Obama said. "Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be maintained."
Moreover, a rapidly expanding Palestinian population in the West Bank will "make it harder and harder — without a peace deal — to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state," he said, referring to fears of intensified Israeli repression to control the growing Palestinian populace.
"Technology" — an apparent reference to the accelerating acquisition of missiles by radical Palestinian and Lebanese militias — "will make it harder for Israel to defend itself," Obama continued.
Finally, Obama said that support for an independent Palestine is rising among Latin American, Asian and European governments that are "impatient" with the lack of a peace process. That impatience is helping to drive a Palestinian campaign for recognition of an independent Palestine by the United Nations in September, he said.
The United States will oppose that effort, said Obama, who reassured his audience that the U.S. commitment to ensuring Israel's security remained "ironclad."
"But the march to isolate Israel internationally — and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations — will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative," he warned.
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