WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested Friday that President Barack Obama holds an unrealistic view of how to achieve peace in the Middle East, saying that Israel would never pull back to the boundaries that the president said a day earlier must be the basis for negotiations.
The unusual Oval Office exchange, following a nearly two-hour meeting, laid bare the fundamental differences between Obama and the hawkish leader of the chief American ally in the Middle East.
Obama and Netanyahu acknowledged those differences in an appearance before reporters, but it was equally clear that differences would not be easily resolved at a time when the Middle East and North Africa are undergoing historic change.
"Israel wants peace. I want peace. What we all want is a peace that will be genuine, that will hold, that will endure," said Netanyahu, addressing Obama next to him but also an evening television audience in Israel. "The only peace that will endure is one based on reality, on unshakable facts."
Netanyahu, in a lecturing tone, then ruled out an Israeli withdrawal to the nation's boundaries on the eve of the June 1967 Mideast War, which ended with the West Bank, Gaza Strip and other territories under Israel's control.
On Thursday, in his speech on the Arab Spring at the State Department, Obama called for those 1967 lines to be the basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations over final borders.
His predecessor, George W. Bush, had called Israel's withdrawal to those lines "unrealistic," given the large Israeli settlements that have been built over more than four decades of occupation. They jut deep inside the West Bank and are home to hundreds of thousands of Israelis.
Israel "cannot go back to the 1967 lines, these lines are indefensible," Netanyahu said. "They don't take into account certain demographic changes that have taken place on the ground over 44 years."
On taking office, Obama made reinvigorating the Mideast peace process a priority, and he inaugurated a round of direct talks last year only to see them collapse within weeks.
Obama has said the political tumult upending governments in the Mideast, including some of Israel's Arab neighbors, makes an Israeli-Palestinian peace process more urgent than ever, given the uncertainty over what will emerge from the unrest.
His endorsement of the 1967 lines as a starting point for talks, which took Israeli officials by surprise, is his latest bid to revive negotiations.
"Obviously there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language — and that's going to happen between friends," Obama said. "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. And that Israel's security will remain paramount in any U.S. evaluation of a peace deal."
In his speech, Obama also insisted that the United States was a firm ally of Israel. He called for talks to be based on the boundaries before the 1967 Mideast War, with land swaps to be negotiated by the parties. He also called for a demilitarized Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel and for pushing back the thorny issues of who will control Jerusalem and what to do with the Palestinian refugees while boundaries and security matters are dealt with first.
In essence, Obama's approach has been U.S. policy since at least the Clinton administration and has been the basis of behind-the-scene talks for years. But Obama became the first president to publicly state the 1967 formula.
The United Nations, European Union and Russia gave strong backing Friday to Obama's proposal. They and the United States comprise the Quartet of international mediators trying to promote a peace settlement.
Information from the Los Angles Times and Associated Press was used in this report.