JERUSALEM // Palestinians reacted coolly to Barack Obama's Thursday address, criticising the US president's attempt at striking an equal policy in a conflict that they say overwhelmingly favours Israel.
"It's clear he's trying to show balance, but it's strange to try to show symmetry in such an asymmetrical situation where you have occupier and occupied being treated so unequally," said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian analyst and writer who lives in both Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan.
In the Gaza Strip, Haidar Eid, a professor of cultural studies at Al Aqsa University, said the thought of attempting such a balance was practically an insult to the Palestinians in Gaza.
"Barack Obama didn't have a single word of sympathy for 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip," he said, using as an example the US leader's decision not to mention Israel's 22-day assault on Gaza that began in December 2008.
"I don't think there are two equal sides to this conflict: there has been one side colonising Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967," he said in reference to Israel's control over these territories since the Arab-Israeli conflict of that year.
Mr Obama stopped short of laying out a full-fledged plan for resolving the Israel-Palestinian dispute, and he all but dashed hopes that his country would support a September bid to have an independent Palestinian state recognised by the United Nations.
"Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state," he said in an apparent warning to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and author of the Palestinian plea for a recognised state.
Mr Obama put forward a number of new US positions that have incensed Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and likely emboldened Mr Abbas. In a first for a US president, he publicly backed a two-state solution based on Israel's 1967 borders.
In a statement yesterday night, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas called on Mr Obama to press Israeli Mr Netanyahu to accept a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders at talks in the White House that began yesterday. Palestinians have demanded this, as well as a halt to Israel's settlement expansion, as a precondition to returning to peace talks, which they abandoned in September.
Mr Obama also called for a "full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces" and a future Palestinian state "with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt".
These two points, Mr Kuttab said, were strong indications that the US president opposed Israel's long-term military presence deep within what would be a new Palestinian state. However, he pointed out that Mr Obama also called for a "demilitarised" Palestinian state.
"It's not the end of the world, but it seems a bit unfair that the Israelis get all the security and the Palestinians not allowed to defend themselves," Mr Kuttab said.
Mr Abbas has called for an emergency meeting with Palestinian and other Arab leaders before he officially responds to the speech. Yesterday, Palestinians seized on the news that roughly 1,550 settlement homes were reportedly proposed to be built in occupied East Jerusalem, claiming this showed Mr Netanyahu's insincerity in trying to find a negotiated end to their conflict.
"When the whole world and US president Barack Obama are working to revive the negotiations and the peace process, the Israeli government is determined to undermine and sabotage these efforts," Saed Erekat, a former Palestinian negotiator in peace talks with Israel, said.
Amr Moussa, the outgoing Arab League chief, urged the US to act on the call for a Palestinian state, blaming the conflict for regional instability. Mr Mussa "called on the United States to build on Obama's address and to strive in the coming weeks and months towards creating an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital", an Arab League statement said.
"The Palestinian cause is the main cause of instability in the Middle East."