Obama presents Mideast peace vision

2011-05-19 22:14
Washington - US President Barack Obama on Thursday threw his weight behind the tumultuous drive for democratic change in the Arab world and presented his most detailed vision yet on the path to elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Obama, in his much-anticipated "Arab spring" speech, hailed popular unrest sweeping the Middle East as a "historic opportunity" and said promoting reform was his administration's top priority for a region caught up in unprecedented upheaval.

He also ratcheted up pressure on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, saying for the first time that he must stop a brutal crackdown or "get out of the way," and prodded US allies Yemen and Bahrain as well for democratic transformation.

Obama's bid to reset ties with a skeptical Arab world was aimed at countering criticism over an uneven response to the region's uprisings that threaten both US friends and foes and his failure to advance Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

His blunt language toward US ally Israel about the need to find an end to its occupation of Arab land could complicate his talks on Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while easing Arab doubts of his commitment to even-handed US mediation.

"The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation," Obama told an audience of US and foreign diplomats at the State Department in Washington.

Most of Obama's speech focused on the unrest convulsing the Arab world, though he did not abandon his approach of balancing support for democratic aspirations with a desire to preserve longtime partnerships seen as crucial to fighting al-Qaeda, containing Iran and securing vital oil supplies.

"The people have risen up to demand their basic human rights and two leaders have stepped aside. More may follow," he said.

Concessions

Seizing on a decades-old conflict long seen as a key catalyst of Middle East tensions, Obama went further than he has before in offering principles for resolving a stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians.

But he stopped short of presenting a formal US peace plan - an omission that could disappoint many in the Arab world - after having failed to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front since taking office in 2009.

Among the parameters he laid down was that any agreement creating a state of Palestine had to be based on borders that existed before Israel captured the West Bank in a 1967 Arab-Israel war but "with mutually agreed swaps" of land.

Though not a US policy shift in itself, Obama's insistence on that point - plus his criticism of continued Israeli "settlement activity" - sends a message to Netanyahu that Washington expected the Jewish state to make concessions.

Obama also reaffirmed an unshakable commitment to Israel's security and condemned what he called "symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations," referring to the Palestinians plan to seek General Assembly recognition for statehood in September.

But he acknowledged that a new reconciliation deal between the Palestinian Authority and the Islamist group Hamas raised "legitimate questions" for Israel, which has condemned the accord as blocking any new peace talks.

Struggling to regain the initiative in a week of intense Middle East diplomacy, Obama seized an opportunity to reach out to the Arab world following the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of US Navy commandos.

Read more on:    bashar al-assad  |  benjamin netanyahu  |  barack obama  |  us  |  middle east peace
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