JERUSALEM (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s call for Israel to give Palestinians territory it has occupied since 1967 stunned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pushed the leaders’ thawing relationship back into the freezer.
Hours before Netanyahu arrived in Washington for talks on Friday, Obama said in a keynote Middle East speech that any future peace deal with Palestinians would have to be based on the borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
No U.S. president has publicly backed such a proposal, which Palestinians have long demanded but which many Israelis have dismissed, arguing that the old border was a random, armistice line that it could not defend.
Israeli officials were sent reeling by the new tack, which they said was only revealed to them on the day of the speech.
“There was complete surprise. They felt they had been cheated,” said one political source who has close contacts with the prime minister’s office.
Netanyahu made his displeasure known in a testy message issued just before he got on his Washington-bound flight, and newspapers predicted rough weather ahead for Israeli-American relations, which have been one of the defining features of Middle East diplomacy for the past six decades.
“We are in the midst of a political drama,” wrote popular Israeli daily Ma’ariv.
“As of last night, the only thing that should interest Benjamin Netanyahu is to prevent Barack Obama from being reelected,” it added, highlighting the widespread belief that Obama will grow much more assertive if he wins a second term.
Further angering the Israeli prime minister, Obama also said explicitly that a future Palestinian state should have a common border with Jordan, leaving up in the air Israel’s demand to keep hold of the Jordan Valley as a security buffer for itself.
Diplomats in Jerusalem have said for years that any peace deal to end the decades-old Middle East conflict would have to be based on 1967 frontiers if Palestinians were ever to agree, with some land swaps envisaged to compensate for settlements.
Obama himself cited the need for territory exchange.
But the idea of turning the clock back more than four decades is an anathema to many in Netanyahu’s conservative coalition, which includes pro-settler parties.
The border line snakes over rocky highlands north and south of Jerusalem. At one point, Israel is only 15 km (10 miles) wide, between the West Bank and the Mediterranean coast.
Razor-wire fences and concrete walls shadow much of the route, but these also detour deep into occupied territory to circle Jewish settlement blocs.
Settlers say the occupied West Bank, which Israel calls Judea and Samaria, is a Jewish biblical birthright. However, not all Israelis are so attached to this hilly land and the main opposition party gave its blessing to Obama’s speech.
“An American president that supports the two-state vision is representing Israeli interests and is not anti-Israel,” opposition leader Tzipi Livni was quoted as saying.
“If there is a consensus in Israel, it’s that relations with the U.S. are essential to Israel, and a prime minister who harms the relationship with the U.S. over something insubstantial is harming Israel’s security and deterrence.”
Relations between Netanyahu, a right-winger, and Obama, a Democrat, were never warm. Some Israelis and their supporters in the United States, anxious to maintain the backing of the global superpower, pointed to Obama’s Muslim Kenyan father as a reason to question his commitment to the Jewish state.
But Israeli officials had hoped that after the tensions of 2010, sparked by an ill-timed announcement of settlement building, the pair had found a way to work together.
Much of what Obama said actually coincided with core Israeli demands, including spelling out that Israel should be a Jewish state and a homeland for the Jewish people, effectively ruling out any mass return of Palestinian refugees.
Indeed, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he welcomed Obama’s efforts to restart the peace talks that broke down last September, many ordinary Palestinians felt short-changed by the speech.
Obama did not condemn in a forthright fashion Israeli settlement building and came down hard on Abbas, telling him his plans to seek statehood recognition in the United Nations this September would never work.
He also said the status of Jerusalem, where the Palestinians want to create their capital, should be decided later.
“As a Palestinian, I was expecting more from him. His speech was disappointing. He has postponed the issues of Jerusalem and refugees,” said Samir Awad, a political analyst at the West Bank Birzeit University.
“With this speech, America has totally sided with the Israeli position,” he added.
Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah; editing by Alastair Macdonald