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A blunt push for peace

Obama has tough words for Israel and the Palestinians, urging them to stay ahead of the wave of popular unrest.

May 20, 2011|Christi Parsons and Paul Richter and Edmund Sanders

WASHINGTON AND JERUSALEM — 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.

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