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Time For A Presidential Clarification

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Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas’s statement last Saturday that “Israeli intransigence” was behind the collapse of the recently convened Israel-Palestinian talks in Jordan may provide a moment of truth for President Obama.

According to The New York Times’s Ethan Bronner, citing senior officials from both sides, Israeli negotiators told their Palestinian counterparts that their guiding principle for future borders in a two state solution would include existing settlement blocs as part of Israel. The Palestinians summarily rejected this. Significantly, a Palestinian spokesman said that “Our starting point is the 1967 borders with minor swaps and theirs is the wall and settlements.” (The wall refers to the separation barrier Israel has been building for a number of years.)

President Obama famously said last spring that he favored final borders based on the 1967 lines with mutual swaps – by which he said he meant to include the major Jewish population centers in the West Bank. Mr. Obama’s formulation, which he claims to have been initially misunderstood, caused a very public confrontation with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

The Palestinian position now pushes things beyond the debate over what President Obama really meant. In the here and now, the Palestinian focus on the 1967 lines with “minor changes” is plainly inconsistent with the notion that “swaps” would include tradeoffs for large population centers.

The question is thus whether President Obama is prepared to take the next step and tell the Palestinians that America stands for Israel’s retaining the major settlement blocs. At the very least, he should declare who he thinks is at fault for the breakdown in the talks.

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