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Israel-US crisis? Reports 'blown way out of proportion,' Netanyahu says

Israel's leader tries to defuse reports of a crisis with the U.S. over his rejection of President Barack Obama's proposed foundation for future Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu
President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Friday.Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected talk of a crisis in Israeli-U.S. relations ahead of a speech on Sunday by Barack Obama to a pro-Israel group which could give the president a cool reception.

"The reports of a disagreement have been blown way out of proportion," Netanyahu was quoted as saying on Saturday by a spokesman, as Obama prepared to address the annual assembly in Washington of the pro-Israel lobby organization AIPAC.

Netanyahu had bluntly criticized Obama's call earlier this week to base future negotiations on Palestinian statehood on Israel's boundaries before it captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. He publicly reiterated that opposition while sitting beside Obama in the Oval Office on Friday.

Obama's proposal that talks start on the basis of Israel's 1967 borders met with howls of protest in Israel. A right-wing group called for an anti-Obama protest at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv on Sunday.

On Saturday, Netanyahu stood firm by his insistence that Israel could not withdraw to its prewar lines, negotiate with a Palestinian government including violently anti-Israel Hamas militants or repatriate allow millions of Palestinians to homes in Israel that they or their families fled or were driven from during the fighting over Israel's 1948 creation.

Still, Netanyahu told The Associated Press, "There should be no doubt about the strength of the American-Israeli relationship and President Obama's commitment to Israel and its security," he added.

"It's true we have some differences of opinion, but these are among friends," Netanyahu said.

'There are differences'And contrary to impressions that he was surprised by Obama's speech, reports on Sunday confirmed Netanyahu was told more than 24 hours ahead of time that Obama would propose a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, and had called Washington to try to get the president to change his mind and his text — without success.

In radio interviews on Sunday, Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren on Sunday confirmed that Netanyahu was informed in advance. Asked by Israel Army Radio, "Why create a crisis?" Oren said: "We do not feel that there is a crisis. There are differences."

In a Mideast policy speech on Thursday, Obama gave unprecedented prominence to Washington's long-held stand on the future borders of Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. Although his comments did not substantively differ from previously articulated U.S. positions, he sent shudders through the Israeli leadership by acceding to Palestinian pressure to explicitly enunciate this stance.

An essential part of what Obama proposed was that Israelis and Palestinians would also have to agree to land swaps that would allow Israel to hold on to major Jewish settlements, a point Netanyahu failed to mention when he declared the 1967 lines to be militarily "indefensible."

From the very first days of his presidency, Obama has been pushing hard to wring an elusive peace agreement from Israel and the Palestinians, who stopped negotiating in late 2008, save a brief period this past September.

Ongoing conflict
The Palestinians have not yet indicated whether his public statement on their hoped-for state's borders would be enough to bring them back to the negotiating table and drop their campaign to have the U.N. recognize their state unilaterally in September, a move both the U.S. and Israel oppose.

The Palestinians have refused to talk to Israel as long as it continues to build homes for Jews in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel has refused to reinstate and expand a 10-month settlement construction slowdown that expired in late September.

In the meantime, the two sides are mired in mutual distrust and divided by more than just the border dispute. Should they ever return to the negotiating table, even bigger problems loom with regard to resolving disputes over the status of contested Jerusalem, and a solution for the refugees.

Netanyahu has said he would not share Jerusalem with the Palestinians, who want the eastern sector of the holy city for the capital of a future state. No Israeli government has been willing to consider anything but a token repatriation of Palestinian refugees, for fear a mass return would dilute the Jewish character of the state.

Netanyahu addresses AIPAC on Monday and a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday.