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In a speech, he endorses an Israel-Palestinian peace agreement based on the 1967 borders.
Published May 20, 2011

New York Times

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama for the first time Thursday called for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would create a nonmilitarized Palestinian state on the basis of Israel's borders before the 1967 war that led to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

"At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever," he said.

Although Obama said that "the core issues" dividing Israelis and Palestinians remained to be negotiated, including the searing questions of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees, he spoke with striking frustration that efforts to support an agreement had so far failed.

"The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome," he said.

The outline for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement came in what the president called "a moment of opportunity" after six months of political upheaval that has at times left the administration scrambling to keep up.

The speech was an attempt to articulate a cohesive U.S. policy to an "Arab Spring" that took a dark turn as the euphoria of popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt gave way to violent crackdowns in Bahrain and Syria, a civil war in Libya and political stalemate in Yemen.

It required a delicate balance, reaffirming support for democratic aspirations in a region where America's strategic interests have routinely trumped its values. While Obama pushed for Hosni Mubarak's exit in Egypt, he has backed up the Bahraini royal family's effort to cling to power.

While he called for the resignation of Moammar Gadhafi and supported a bombing campaign against Libya with that ultimate goal, he vacillated as Bashar Assad of Syria turned tanks and troops on his people, authorizing sanctions against him only Wednesday.

Obama said the events in the region reflected an inexorable desire for democracy that nations - both friend and foe of the United States - could not suppress. He warned Assad that Syria would face increasing isolation if he did not respond to those demanding a transition to democracy, though again, he stopped short of explicitly calling for his removal.

"President Assad now has a choice," Obama said. "He can lead that transition, or get out of the way."

He was no less blunt in the case of Bahrain, an ally that has brutally cracked down on protests there.

"The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail," he said in one of the few phrases that drew applause from an audience that included State Department officials, lawmakers, military commanders and Arab diplomats.

Obama, in his remarks, reaffirmed that the Middle East is a complex place, where different countries demand different responses, although he affirmed that U.S. support for democracy should undergird its policies.

He conceded that the United States had not been a central actor in the uprisings, but he sought to cast the U.S. role in the Middle East in a new context now that the war in Iraq is winding down and Osama bin Laden has been killed, in part, a primary goal of the war that began in Afghanistan nearly a decade ago.

While critical of autocracy throughout the Mideast, he failed to mention the region's largest, richest and arguably most repressive nation, U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. Nor did he discuss Jordan, a staunch U.S. ally that has a peace deal with Israel. Also left out was the United Arab Emirates, the wealthy, pro-American collection of mini-states on the Persian Gulf. And he gave little attention to Iran, where U.S. attempts at outreach have gone nowhere.

Obama is to meet Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the White House today against the backdrop of the region's tumult, which reached Israel itself Sunday when thousands of Palestinians stormed border crossings from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.

The Arab uprisings have sharpened security concerns in Israel, intensified animus toward it and given momentum to global recognition of a Palestinian state.

Much of the president's speech dwelt on the security threats to Israel, and his specific reference to a "nonmilitarized" Palestinian state seemed likely to dismay Palestinians, who have long said that such matters should be decided in negotiations. He also warned Palestinians that their campaign to seek recognition in a vote of the U.N. General Assembly in September would not be constructive.

And he warned that the recent unity agreement between two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, raised "profound and legitimate questions from Israel.

"How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist," he said, referring to Hamas, which the United States has designated as a terrorist organization. "In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Netanyahu rejects old border lines

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Thursday that a withdrawal from the West Bank would leave Israel vulnerable to attack.

He said the 1967 border lines were "indefensible" and would leave major Jewish settlements outside Israel. Netanyahu also rejects any pullout from East Jerusalem. He heads to the White House today and said he would seek clarifications.

Behind the rhetoric, though, was the possibility of finding common ground. Obama said he would support agreed-upon territorial swaps between Israel and the Palestinians, leaving the door open for Israel to retain major West Bank settlements.