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Mayor Rahm Emanuel backs President Obama on Israel

Rahm Emanuel visits Jerusalem May 2010 when he was White House chief staff. | Sebastian Scheiner~AP

Rahm Emanuel visits Jerusalem in May 2010, when he was White House chief of staff. | Sebastian Scheiner~AP

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Updated: July 8, 2011 3:31PM

WASHINGTON — The White House, with an assist from Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Friday, is pushing back against Republicans — presidential hopefuls and others — who assert President Obama’s Israeli-Palestinian policy is weakening prospects to jump-start peace negotiations.

“I am grateful that this president has not given up trying to find a path that would bring the parties back to the negotiating table,” Emanuel wrote in an op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post that quickly was noticed in Israel.

A new White House website explaining Obama’s Middle East policy — launched Friday and shopped around to U.S. Jewish groups — is seen as an element in a concerted effort on the part of the White House to forcefully fight back against critics who complain that Obama is weak on Israel.

Obama has been having to prove and defend his support-of-Israel credentials since the 2008 presidential campaign. Obama won the White House with 78 percent of the Jewish vote and with massive campaign fund-raising help from the U.S. Jewish community.

Emanuel, Obama’s former White House chief of staff — whose father is an Israeli immigrant — penned the op-ed column to defend Obama’s May 19 speech on the Middle East where the president said “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who announced his GOP bid for president on Thursday, said last month Obama “threw Israel under the bus.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, also mulling a 2012 run, called it “the most dangerous speech ever made by an American president.”

Republicans seem intent on trying to cause a rift between Obama and his Jewish supporters. Comments by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid after Obama’s speech were not seen as helpful — but their remarks were seen as a one-time shot, not the kind of persistent criticism expected to continue to come from Republicans.

Obama’s language — the mentioning of the 1967 borders on the record — triggered a controversy in part because the speech came the day before the White House visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu had wanted the line cut from the speech and ended up delivering a lecture to Obama about Israeli history during a joint press conference at the White House on May 20.

Emanuel, also a former Clinton White House adviser, wrote in the Post that Obama’s comments “stated a concept that has been the basis of every serious attempt at a resolution since the negotiations President Bill Clinton held at Camp David in 2000. He reminded us that every president and many Israeli elected leaders have recognized that the borders are one starting point for negotiations, not the end point.”

Emanuel’s op-ed drew reaction from the Israeli press. Haaretz noted in its news story about Emanuel’s column that he was attempting “to assuage Israeli fears that the U.S. administration expects Israel to return to 1967 borders, clarifying that this was never Obama’s policy.”

Obama wound up having to clarify his comments during a May 22 speech, but that did not stop his critics.

“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 forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides. The ultimate goal is two states for two peoples.”

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