Palestine received backing from the worlds highest office today as President Barack Obama endorsed their major demand for the borders of its future state to be based on 1967 borders, before the Six Day War in which Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, prodding Israel to accept that it can never have a truly peaceful nation that is based on “permanent occupation.” The comments, which come ahead of his meetings tomorrow with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mark Obama’s most comprehensive response to the Arab uprisings to date. Speaking at the State Department, he called for the first time for the leader of Syria to embrace democracy or move aside, though without specifically demanding his ouster.
The aims of his address were clear, show definitive support to the protesters who have swelled from nation to nation across the Middle East and North Africa, whilst convincing America that US involvement in such unstable countries halfway around the world is in their interest, too. Obama said the United States has a historic opportunity and the responsibility to support the rights of people clamoring for freedoms, and he called for “a new chapter in American diplomacy.” Obama said the “shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region.” The president noted that two leaders had stepped down — referring to Egypt and Tunisia — and said, “more may follow.” He quoted civilian protesters who have pushed for change in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. On Syria, Obama said President Bashar Assad must lead his country to democracy or “get out of the way,” his most direct warning to the leader of a nation embroiled in violence. Obama said the Syrian government “has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens.” He praised the Syrian people for their courage in standing up to repression in a bloody crackdown that has killed hundreds. He continued to say that while each country in the region is unique, there are shared values in the push for political change and that while there will be setbacks accompanying progress in political transitions, the movements present a valuable opportunity for the US to show which side it is on.
But which side is that? The president ignored many of the most divisive issues separating the two sides. He did not speak about the status of Jerusalem or the fate of Palestinian refugees. And, he did not discuss a way to resolve Israel’s concerns about a Hamas role in a unified Palestinian government, telling the Palestinians that they would have to address the matter themselves. The speech was in some ways notable for what Obama did not mention. While critical of autocracy throughout the Middle East, he failed to mention at the region’s largest, richest and arguably most repressive nation, US 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 Gulf. And he gave little attention to Iran, where US attempts at outreach have gone nowhere.
On the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the president cautioned that the recent power-sharing agreement between the mainstream Palestinian faction led by Mahmoud Abbas and the radical Hamas movement that rules Gaza “raises profound and legitimate” security questions for Israel. Netanyahu has refused to deal with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. “How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” Obama asked. “In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.”