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Obama, Netanyahu Meet At White House


From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

At the White House today, the meeting between President Obama and the Israeli Prime Minister appeared to be frosty. Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed anger with the way Mr. Obama has tried to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Today, both men put on their game faces and acknowledge their differences, as NPR's Michele Keleman reports.

MICHELE KELEMAN: Israeli's were furious with one paragraph in President Obama's speech yesterday when he publically endorsed the idea that negotiations on borders between Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines. Those were the boundaries before Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Netanyahu, at the White House today, adamantly rejected that.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines because these lines are indefensible.

KELEMAN: The body language was tense. President Obama, his hand resting on his chin, watched Netanyahu intently as he laid down his red lines on key issues. The Israeli prime minister said on the issue of the right of return for Palestinian refugees, quote, "that's not going to happen." And he rejected the idea of talking to the Palestinians if the militant group Hamas is part of the government.

NETANYAHU: Hamas has just attacked you, Mr. President, and the United States for ridding the world of bin Laden. So Israel, obviously, cannot be asked to negotiate with a government that is backed by the Palestinian version of al-Qaida.

KELEMAN: President Obama agreed that the Palestinian government's unity deal with Hamas complicates prospects for negotiations. He also repeated U.S. support for meeting Israel's security needs.

BARACK OBAMA: Obviously, there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language and that's going to happen between friends. 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.

KELEMAN: Some analysts have been puzzled by Netanyahu's angry tone. After all, says Scott Lasensky of the U.S. Institute of Peace, the language President Obama used on the 1967 borders was only slightly different from what others have said.

SCOTT LASENSKY: The president of the United States did not go into a room and come up with this formula on his own. These are formulations that the United States and the parties have been dancing around for years.

KELEMAN: Still, Lasensky says, how those words are perceived in the region can be different.

LASENSKY: In Israel, where the politics in this current Israeli government are quite strident and where, I think, many in this Israeli government are trying to desperately hold on to a status quo which is quickly evaporating, any American position that is a departure is a worrisome one and seems to have left them panicked.

KELEMAN: A former Israeli negotiator, Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation, says Netanyahu is not giving the U.S. anything to work with, even as President Obama warns that the changes in the region make peace more urgent than ever.

DANIEL LEVY: In that changing region of popular uprisings, of democracy where public opinion matters, to have the Palestinians still denied their freedom and to have America having to carry that on its back, running cover for Israel, is a huge problem for America and Israel. And he was hoping that the Israeli prime minister would see the enormity of the hour and respond. The Israeli prime minister has chosen to dig in.

KELEMAN: Levy says Netanyahu showed his true colors today and the dividing line was clear. What's less clear is whether Israel or the U.S. can now find a way to head off the Palestinian plans to give up on any peace process and try to get the United Nations to recognize an independent state of Palestine.

Michele Keleman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.