Weighing in on the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian efforts to forge a peace deal, President Obama urged both sides to negotiate on the basis of Israel's borders before the 1967 Six-Day War, albeit with "mutually agreed" swaps of land.
(PICTURES: Obama's Middle East speech)
"The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states," Obama said. "The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state."
(FULL TEXT: Obama's remarks, as prepared for delivery)
Obama made his remarks as part of a much-anticipated address on the Middle East and North Africa delivered at the State Department. The White House had hinted throughout the week that the address would contain new ideas; the comments about 1967 borders, while not entirely new, are rarely aired by an American president and constitute the speech's headline.
Obama's speech attempted to assuage concerns by Israelis that now is not the right time to reopen peace talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will meet with Obama on Friday and address Congress on his vision of Israel’s future on Tuesday, argues that there is too much uncertainty with Israel’s neighbors to restart the peace negotiations. He’s particularly distrustful of entering talks with the Palestinians now that Hamas has joined a unity government. Obama suggested Netanyahu’s concerns are legitimate.
“How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” Obama said. “In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.”
But Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is meeting with the president on Friday, criticized the speech saying that Israel's 1967 borders are "indefensible" and noting without a solution to the Palestinian refugee "problem outside the borders of Egypt no territorial concession will bring peace."
Republicans also jumped on the president's comments, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, a presidential candidate, chided the 1967-borders proposal.
Obama also revealed that his administration would provide an additional $2 billion in aid for Egypt and Tunisia, and would attempt to help jump-start the economies of those two nations through trade and economic development.
The wide-ranging address reiterated American support for political reform in the region and condemned the use of violence against protests.
In the lead-up to the speech, the White House suggested that Obama wanted to use the address to mark a historic moment in U.S. policy in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world. Obama noted that over the last decade, the nation’s focus in the region was largely on Iraq and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But with the war in Iraq winding down and bin Laden dead, his administration has been presented with a new opening to advance U.S. values and recalibrate its vision.
“There will be perils that accompany this moment of promise,” Obama said. “But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.”
Yet, the speech may come off as dissatisfying on the Arab street. The president didn’t explain how he would sort out friends and enemies in the transforming region.
Obama notably did not call for the removal of Bashar al-Assad as Syria's president. Instead, Obama said Assad had to support reform or leave. The president also said that time is running out for Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi.
But he did seem to acknowledge that, at times, the United States approach on the reform movement may come off as inconsistent. To that end, he called on Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to follow through on a commitment to transfer his authority, and Bahrain’s government to take action to meet its citizens calls for democratic reform.
“If America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for change consistent with the principles that I have outlined today,” Obama said.