The Envoy

Obama lays out U.S. vision for supporting Arab democracy, resolving Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The Envoy

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In a widely anticipated speech at the State Department today, President Barack Obama laid out a sweeping vision for U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Obama stressed a renewed U.S. support for democracy, political reform and economic development in the region, and drew heavily on the "Arab spring" popular rebellions of the past six month, which have challenged and in some cases upended, seemingly stable authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. At the same time, Obama defied expectations he would only briefly discuss the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian peace process, laying out a more detailed U.S. vision for how the Israelis and Palestinians should resolve their dispute over borders based on pre-1967 war lines with agreed swaps.

"It will be the policy of the United States to support democracy and civil society in the region," Obama said in recognition of the Arab spring's legacy. And toward the end of the hour-long address, he cautioned that "the dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation."

"What America and the international community can do is state frankly what everyone knows: a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples," he said. "Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

"The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine," Obama said, laying out the U.S. position. "We believe 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. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state."

Mideast experts called it a "moment of truth" and expressed relief that Obama chose to outline a U.S. vision for resolving the conflict at this time.

"I think the president intuitively understood that if he did not offer a legitimate way forward toward resolving the Israeli Palestinian conflict, that this broader vision for how America would engage with the citizens of the Middle East and North Africa would seem hollow," said former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fl.), now president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and a close Obama administration ally on the peace process.

"By stating for the first time as an American president the American position that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be resolved based on '67 lines with agreed upon territorial swaps, Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Abbas now have decisions to make," Wexler continued. "And the decisions that they must make are not to be juxtaposed with the other sides' position, but with America's position. And this is a moment of truth."

"For the Israelis and Palestinian publics ... President Obama has offered the way forward," Wexler continued.

Obama's laying out the U.S. vision that Israel and Palestine should negotiate borders on the '67 borders with agreed swaps is "a huge advance," said Stephen P. Cohen, a former Middle East consultant to the National Intelligence Council.

In a statement responding to Obama's remarks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Obama for his "commitment to peace,"  but said Israel would not "withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] beyond those lines."

The Israeli leader, who meets with Obama at the White House Friday, also asked Obama to reassert a promise Israel received in a 2004 letter from President George W. Bush that three major Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank would become part of Israel under the establishment of a Palestinian state. Presumably, this is the kind of "agreed swap" Obama's speech suggested Israelis and Palestinians could negotiate.

Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Obama's speech underlined a broader compass for America's ties to the people of the Arab world beyond narrowly defined U.S. interests of fighting terrorism, securing energy supplies and ensuring stability. He chastised regimes cracking down violently against their populations, from Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, to Syria's Bashar al-Assad (who was targeted for U.S. economic sanctions yesterday). Significantly, Obama also criticized U.S.-allies Yemen and Bahrain, whose Sunni rulers have been engaged in a Saudi-backed brutal crackdown against its Shiite majority.

"Our support for these peoples is not of secondary interest: it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions," Obama said. The White House proposed over two billion dollars in foreign investment incentives and debt relief for Egypt among other measures to try to lend economic support to fledgling democracies in the region.

Obama's speech heralded "the first opportunity for a serious American Middle East policy that we have had since the end of World War II," Cohen said. "Now I must tell you, it is going to be not easy to implement. But he has spoken clearly about some of the steps can take now to implement which include not only verbal support of these groups but also to work hard on economic development of Egypt."

(President Barack Obama delivers a policy address on events in the Middle East at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, May 19, 2011.: Charles Dharapak/AP)

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