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Obama firm on Mideast

He rejects criticism of a peace plan by Netanyahu, others.

New York Times

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama, speaking on Sunday to the nation's foremost pro-Israel lobbying group, repeated his call for Palestinian statehood based on Israel's pre-1967 borders adjusted for land swaps, issuing a challenge to the Israeli government to "make the hard choices that are necessary to protect a Jewish and democratic state for which so many generations have sacrificed."

In his remarks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the president, while offering praise for the relationship with Israel, did not walk back from his speech on Thursday, which had infuriated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Rather, the president took indirect aim at Netanyahu, first by repeating what the Israeli prime minister so objected to - the phrase pre-1967 borders - and then by challenging those who he said had "misrepresented" his position.

"Let me repeat what I actually said on Thursday," Obama said in firm tones at one point, "not what I was reported to have said."

"I said that the United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states."

The president emphasized the "mutually agreed swaps," then went into an elaboration of what he believes that means. Netanyahu, in his critique of Obama's remarks, had ignored the "mutually agreed swaps" part of the president's proposal.

"Since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what '1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps' means," Obama said. "By definition, it means that the parties themselves - Israelis and Palestinians - will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. 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 was nothing particularly original in my proposal," he said. "This basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations."

Netanyahu's furious reaction last week to Obama's proposal infuriated the White House. In particular, administration officials were angry by Netanyahu's lecturing tone during statements the two leaders gave on Friday. U.S. officials were also irritated by Netanyahu's statement directly after Obama's speech that used the phrase "expects to hear" in saying that Netanyahu expected to hear certain assurances from Obama during their meeting.

On Sunday, Netanyahu said in a statement after Obama's remarks that he supported the president's desire to advance peace and resolved to work with him to find ways to renew the negotiations. "Peace is a vital need for us all," Netanyahu said.

The Israeli leader's tone was far more reserved than last week, when he issued an impassioned rejection of the 1967 borders as "indefensible" and even appeared to publicly admonish Obama after their White House meeting.

Netanyahu was to address the pro-Israel lobby tonight and Congress on Tuesday.

Obama assured the lobbying group that the administration was steadfast in its "opposition to any attempt to de-legitimize the state of Israel," but he warned that Israel would face growing isolation without a credible Middle East peace process.

Sunday's audience, which had been quiet, cheered Obama, although the cheers were far more muted than the standing ovation they had given at other points of Obama's speech, like when he talked about Iran and when he reiterated his opposition to a looming U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood.

"I know very well that the easy thing to do, particularly for a president preparing for re-election, is to avoid any controversy," Obama said. "I don't need Rahm" - former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel - "to tell me that."

But, Obama added, "as I said to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I believe that the current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination. I also believe that real friends talk openly and honestly with one another."

Others close to the administration have also pushed back against the notion Obama was signaling a major shift in U.S. policy on Thursday. "No, he wasn't," said his newly departed special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, when asked that question on Sunday.

"The president didn't say that Israel has to go back to the '67 lines," Mitchell said on ABC's This Week. "He said 'with agreed swaps.' Those are significant."

Mitchell went on: "'Agreed' means through negotiations; both parties must agree. There's not going to be a border unless Israel agrees to it, and we know they won't agree unless their security needs are satisfied."

It was a quietly delivered speech that lasted 20 minutes, and at the end, the packed hall of the Washington Convention Center stood up for Obama and clapped - some even cheered. There were no boos or hisses, as some of the president's allies had feared.

Obama's arrival on stage, before a backdrop collage that meshed fragments of the Israeli and American flags, was met with loud applause. But that was at least partly because it followed an introduction by Lee Rosenberg, the group's president, that ended with a guaranteed applause line: "Thank you, Mr. President, for ridding the world of Osama bin Laden."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Willing to compromise

Polling shows that American Jews are open to compromises in the interest of Middle East peace. A survey commissioned by the American Jewish Committee last fall show that 62 percent of the Jewish community believes Israel should be willing to dismantle at least some of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank as part of an accord with the Palestinians.

Los Angeles Times

.fast facts

Visit to Ireland

President Barack Obama was expected to begin a visit to Ireland today as part of trip to four European countries over six days. He plans to drop by Moneygall, a hamlet where his great-great-great grandfather on his mother's side, Fulmouth Kearney, lived before emigrating to the United States in 1850. The trip also will take him to Britain, France and Poland.

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