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Obama restates call for '1967 lines' in Israeli-Palestinian talks

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on May 22, 2011 in Washington, D.C.

Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Unwilling to retreat from Benjamin Netanyahu's angry outbursts, Barack Obama warned thousands of ardent pro-Israelis that finding a lasting peace with Palestinians begins with Israel's pre-1967 frontiers.

The U.S. President's tone was soothing and his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee placatory, but he didn't budge from his statement last week that has sparked a furor and the remarkable spectacle of an Israeli prime minister publicly disputing an American president in the Oval Office.

As Mr. Obama reiterated Sunday, it remains the obvious - if not explicitly stated position by any previous president - that negotiating boundaries for a Palestinian state begins with Israel's frontiers before the lightning war of June 1967, when Israel defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan, seizing and occupying the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the revered walled city of old Jerusalem.

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"If there is a controversy, then, it's not based in substance," Mr. Obama said, added that he has said nothing new or startling, although his reference to "1967 lines" drew scattered boos from the audience that has been explicitly told to respectively receive speakers, even if they disagree.

"It was my reference to the 1967 lines - with mutually agreed swaps - that received the lion's share of the attention, including just now," Mr. Obama said. He said his position has been "misrepresented" although he didn't call out Mr. Netanyahu - who will deliver his own version of the way forward Monday to the 10,000-plus AIPAC at the most powerful pro-Israeli group's annual convention. (The blunt-speaking Israeli leader - whose relationship with Mr. Obama has ranged from distant to frosty - will give a speech Tuesday to a joint session of Congress.)

"What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately," Mr. Obama said. "I've done so because we can't afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades to achieve peace."

"Delay will undermine security," he added.

Prior to the June 1967 war, Israel was less than 20 kilometres wide at its narrowest point. Since then, sprawling Jewish suburbs have been built around Jerusalem and scattered Israeli settlements dominated key parts of the West Bank. Hundreds of thousands of Jews now live in areas seized in the 1967 war.

Mr. Netanyahu has called the pre-1967 Israeli frontiers "indefensible," flatly rejecting any return to them. He has equally bluntly said millions of Palestinians - most of them second- and third-generation descendents of those who fled or were driven from their homes in the 1948, 1967 and 1973 wars, won't be allowed to enter Israel.

On Sunday, Mr. Obama took pains to explain what he meant. "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," Mr. Obama said, referring to the date that the Six-Day War started 44 years ago.

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Defusing anger among pro-Israeli Americans - both American Jews and the tens of millions of the Christian Right who ardently back the Jewish state - occupied much of Mr. Obama's speech. He re-pledged America's unwavering support and vowed to provide Israeli with weapons and warplanes. "Make no mistake we will maintain Israel's qualitative military edge," he told cheering delegates. He also vowed to continue "preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons" and to keep wielding America's veto to protect Israel at the United Nations.

He also - in a pointed reference to Hamas, the Islamic party that won election in Gaza but refuses to accept Israel's right to exist - said "no country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction."

"The bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable, and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad," he said. Mr. Obama was making his first appearance before AIPAC as president. He has yet to visit Israel since being elected in 2008, a sore point for many Israelis.

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