President Obama plunged back into efforts to restart Middle East peace talks, pressuring both sides with a set of U.S. principles that appeared to catch Israeli leaders off guard and is likely to set up a tense meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday.
The president’s speech Thursday, which the White House had billed as a major address on the Middle East, reflected a sense of impatience as Obama confronts the region’s numerous problems. Aides said he was seeking to put the Israeli-Palestinian issues into the broader context of U.S. support for this year’s uprisings challenging autocratic rulers in the Middle East and North Africa and to emphasize the urgency of resolving some of the region’s problems.
“The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome,” he said.
Obama warned Palestinians that they would not achieve statehood through a proposed U.N. resolution, which the Palestinian leadership has been pushing to pass in September.
And he warned Israelis that time is not on their side.
“The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation,” he said. “A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people, not just one or two leaders, must believe peace is possible.”
Obama’s principles for negotiations contained elements for each side to dislike: He said the two parties should resolve the borders of a future Palestinian state and find ways to guarantee Israel’s security before negotiating over the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. The Palestinians have long objected to separating the issues that way. The president also said the Palestinian state should be demilitarized.
But afterward, it was the Israelis who reacted more negatively, focusing on Obama’s declaration that the negotiations should start from Israel’s borders before the 1967 Middle East War. The pre-1967 lines have been used behind closed doors as the basis for negotiations for more than a decade, and the last three U.S. administrations have informally embraced the concept.
But Israel has rejected them, and Obama’s speech was the first time a U.S. president has publicly said the boundaries should be the starting point for talks.
Netanyahu began to fire off objections via his office’s Twitter feed even before boarding his plane for Washington. He pronounced the 1967 lines “indefensible” and said his nation’s defense “requires an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River” in the West Bank.
In a sign of the internal debate over how far Obama should go toward injecting himself into the Mideast process, the White House did not release a text of the speech until the president began to deliver it.
Top aides, including national security advisor Thomas Donilon and senior Mideast advisor Dennis Ross, had argued against laying out U.S. proposals.
But Obama, accepting the arguments of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others, decided to seize on the momentum of change in the Middle East, and that doing so would help convince the Arab world that the administration was on the side of reform.
“He realized that if he offered little or no constructive way forward on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his broader prescription for reform would seem hollow,” said former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who heads the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and was an Obama advisor during the 2008 presidential campaign.
U.S. officials believe they need to show movement in negotiations to prevent other countries from deciding the peace process is going nowhere. They have been seeking ways to head off an effort by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to win United Nations recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state.
Obama’s remarks on the peace plan came toward the end of his 45-minute address to foreign service officers at the State Department, in which he provided his first comprehensive review of the Middle East and North Africa as protests sweep the region and the countries of Tunisia and Egypt are in transition to what Western leaders hope will be democratic regimes.
He declared an “alignment” of America’s interests with its values of supporting the right to free speech, equality and self-determination, be it in Syria, Yemen or Iran.
He was tougher than in past days on Syrian rulers for their crackdown on demonstrators, and called on leaders in Yemen and Bahrain, which have been U.S. allies, to respond to their people’s aspirations for freedom and opportunity.
The president did not mention Saudi Arabia by name or the movement for freedom in that country, whose leadership has been so strategically important to U.S. interests in the region.
Personally embracing the freedom movements in one vivid allusion, Obama compared the Tunisian fruit vendor who sparked the first protests in that country to Rosa Parks and other American civil rights heroes.
“I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of nonviolence as a way to perfect our union,” Obama said, by “organizing, marching, protesting peacefully together to make real those words that declared our nation: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ ”
But it was the remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that dominated the debate that followed the speech. Administration officials said they had briefed the Israelis on key proposals in advance, including Obama’s references to the pre-1967 borders.
Israeli leaders said they were surprised and disappointed. Just hours before the speech, officials expressed confidence that there would be no surprises and that U.S. officials had assured them that Israel would be pleased.
During a meeting Thursday in Jerusalem with Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told reporters, “We are all on the same page.”
After Obama’s speech, a spokesman for Netanyahu declined to comment. In a terse statement issued by his office, the prime minister said he “expects to hear a reaffirmation” during the upcoming meeting with Obama of what he said were Bush administration promises in 2004 that Israel would not have to withdraw to the 1967 borders and that Palestinian refugees would be resettled in the new Palestinian state, not Israel.
For conservative members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, the U.S. endorsement of 1967 lines is a deeply sensitive issue.
Israel has long argued that those borders are not legally binding and that permanent borders should reflect Israel’s security needs. It has also resisted a public endorsement of the concept, saying such issues should be part of an overall peace deal hammered out during negotiations.
Zalman Shoval, a Likud Party foreign affairs advisor and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said Israeli officials had been led to believe that the pre-1967 boundaries would not be addressed in Obama’s speech. Shoval said some worry that accepting those borders, even as a starting point, might lead to Palestinians eventually demanding a full return to those lines.
“We wouldn’t have been in the territories in the first place if we didn’t have vulnerable borders before 1967,” Shoval said.
Danny Danon, an outspoken Likud lawmaker, said Obama’s call would “eventually remove the state of Israel from the map.”
On Thursday, an Interior Ministry committee approved construction of about 1,500 previously announced housing units in Har Homa and Pisgat Zeev, two Jerusalem developments on land Israel seized after the 1967 war. Some viewed the timing of the approval as linked to Netanyahu’s visit.
Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.
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Fighting continues between forces loyal to Moammar Kadafi and rebels seeking his ouster. Although Libya is one of Africa’s largest oil producers, the crisis has crippled production and cut refined fuel imports, creating a severe shortage of gasoline.
A violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by President Bashar Assad’s regime has resulted in U.S. and European sanctions. Government troops continue to use force to try to end the uprising against the Assad family’s decades-long rule.
Clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians have raised questions about the military-led government’s ability and willingness to maintain security. Former President Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down Feb. 11 in response to public protests, remains in custody.
Opposition groups say a crackdown on mostly Shiite Muslim protesters who rose up against the Sunni royal family has become something more pervasive as the government tries to cast the protests as part of a regional struggle between Sunnis and Shiites.
The interim government said an overnight curfew in the capital, Tunis, ordered because of violence during protests, would be lifted. Protesters, who forced former President Zine el Abidine ben Ali to flee, worry that the country’s efforts to build democracy are not working.
Embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had agreed to and then rejected a deal allowing him to leave power with immunity, plans to sign the accord after all, a spokesman said. Anti-government demonstrators remained unconvinced Thursday.
#g#la-mn-A1mideast-graphic.eps#KP2DQQMA#KP2DQQMA#RAOUL RANOA, LORENA ELEBEE, LORRAINE WANG##MAP: Region of change