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Purposeful, Provocative

May 26, 2011
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Israeli and U.S. officials have been taking pains in recent days to tamp down the firestorm that erupted after President Barack Obama's controversial speech on the Middle East last week.

The real question is whether the continuing mistrust between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will in the long run undermine what both countries' leaders say they want -- movement toward a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The president's references in his May 19 speech to the 1967 borders with land swaps as the basis for Israeli-Palestinians negotiations, refugees and Jerusalem were, by all accounts, purposeful -- and provocative.

With this brief but major blunder, Obama managed to overshadow his entire policy speech about the Arab world, foment Israeli distrust and provide more fodder for his political enemies.

The president sought to clarify his remarks in his speech three days later at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference, emphasizing that "the parties themselves -- Israelis and Palestinians -- will negotiate" a new border, taking into account "new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides."

The irony is that prospects for any imminent return to talks are dim, given that the current turmoil in the region and the newfound alliance between Fatah and Hamas.

The mystery is why -- and reportedly against the advice of his top Mideast adviser, Dennis Ross -- the president would choose to raise these controversial issues in such a public arena. He did, as many Jewish groups have noted, also reiterate his strong support for Israel, his opposition to any unilateral Palestinian moves to achieve international recognition for statehood and pronounced that any future Palestinian state would need to be demilitarized.

It remains to be seen whether the administration's professed reason for pushing a return to what he termed a "credible peace process" will help persuade European leaders to reject the Palestinians' unilateral bid for statehood at the United Nations.

For his part, Netanyahu took some bold steps in his address to the U.S. Congress, declaring that he's ready to make "painful compromises" for a real peace, including giving up Jewish claim on some parts of the West Bank.

The exuberant response to the Israeli premier -- one Israeli commentator quipped that Netanyahu could only dream of such a reception at home -- sends a clear signal to the administration and the world that the U.S. Congress stands behind the Jewish state.

That support is unlikely to help create a more conducive environment for Israel to attain the longed-for peace with its neighbors, but it was an inspiring sight nonetheless.

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