Obama Backs Deal Based on 1967 Lines
Doug Mills/ The New York Times
By STEVEN LEE MYERS and MARK LANDLER
Published: May 19, 2011
WASHINGTON — Seeking to harness the seismic political change still unfolding in the Arab world, President Obama on Thursday publicly called for the borders prevailing before the 1967 Israeli-Arab war to be the baseline for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the first time an American president has explicitly taken that position.
Although Mr. 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.
His decision to put the United States formally on record as supporting the 1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations over a Palestinian state marks a subtle — but, for the contentious Israeli-Palestinian peace process, potentially important — shift by the United States a step closer to the position of the Palestinians.
The shift is vital to the Palestinians because it means the Americans implicitly back their view that new Israeli settlement construction would have to be reversed — or compensated for — in talks over the borders for a new Palestinians state.
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 American 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 Mr. 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 Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and supported a bombing campaign against Libya with that ultimate goal, he vacillated as Bashar al-Assad of Syria turned tanks and troops on his people, authorizing sanctions against him only on Wednesday.
Mr. 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 bluntly warned Mr. 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,” Mr. Obama said. “He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”
He was no less blunt in the case of Bahrain, a close ally that has brutally cracked down on protests there. “The only was 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.
Mr. Obama, in his remarks, reaffirmed that the Middle East is a complex place, where different countries demand different responses, though he affirmed that America’s support for democracy should undergird its policies. It was a marked contrast to his landmark speech in Cairo in June 2009, when he addressed himself to the Islamic world as a whole, trying to heal a rift with the United States.
He conceded bluntly that the United States had not been a central actor in the uprisings, but he sought to cast America’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.
Mr. Obama’s aides and speechwriters labored on his remarks until the last hours before he delivered it in the stately Benjamin Franklin Dining Room on the eighth floor of the State Department.