x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Obama backs Palestine state with 1967 borders

Long-awaited speech outlines US administration’s vision for moving forward peace process stalled for eight months, based on a 'viable Palestine and a secure Israel', as US president touches on effects of Arab Spring.

A barber in the West Bank city of Ramallah shaves a customer during the speech by President Barack Obama yesterday that endorsed a key Palestinian demand for the borders of its future state.
A barber in the West Bank city of Ramallah shaves a customer during the speech by President Barack Obama yesterday that endorsed a key Palestinian demand for the borders of its future state.

WASHINGTON // Barack Obama, the US president, publicly called for the first time yesterday for a Palestinian state to be created on 1967 borders with agreed-upon land swaps.

The remarks came in a long-awaited speech seeking to frame US policy on the “extraordinary change” that has swept the Middle East and North Africa region over the past months.

US policy, Mr Obama said, is to support a set of universal principles  for which “it can – and will – speak out”. Among these are free speech, peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, gender equality and “the right to choose your own leaders — whether you live in Baghdad or  Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.”

“We face an historic opportunity. We have embraced the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. There must be no doubt that the  United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity.”

Mr Obama devoted more of his speech to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than many had expected, outlining the US administration’s vision for how to move forward a peace process that has been stalled  for eight months. Core issues, he said, still had to be negotiated, but the basis for negotiations were clear: a “viable Palestine and a secure Israel”.

“The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognised borders are established  for both states.”

A Palestinian state would be non-militarised, Mr Obama said, and Israel should be able to defend itself “against any threat”. He acknowledged that starting with borders and security left unresolved the “wrenching” issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. Nor did he give any indication for how the administration would resolve the issue of borders without resolving the issue of Jerusalem.

It is, nevertheless, the first public outline of the Obama administration’s vision for solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Two years of intense diplomacy had formally petered out last week with the resignation of George Mitchell as Middle East peace envoy. But with Palestinians preparing to seek statehood recognition at the UN in September – an effort Mr Obama described as a “symbolic” attempt to isolate Israel that would not lead to independence – the administration was under some pressure to act sooner rather than later.

It sets the scene, however, for a tense meeting today at the White House with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who is in town also to address the annual conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as well as the US Congress.

Mr Netanyahu’s office yesterday issued a terse response to Mr Obama’s speech, rejecting any withdrawal to “indefensible” 1967 borders, asserting that Israel would insist on keeping a military presence in the Jordan Valley, as well as insisting that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people”.

Monday’s speech at Congress will now take on great significance. Israel garners near total bi-partisan support in Congress, and Mr Netanyahu is likely to use the speech to set out his objections to Mr Obama’s vision for resolving the conflict. That, however, would leave members of Congress with the uncomfortable proposition of giving a standing ovation – as Mr Netanyahu would normally expect in Congress – to a foreign leader directly contradicting the US president.

Mr Obama’s remarks on the Palestine-Israel conflict came at the end of a 45-minute speech largely devoted to emphasising US support for democratic forces in the region and outlining practical measures the US, along with the EU, the IMF and World Bank, would take to strengthen the transitions in the region in the two countries where leaders had resigned, Tunisia and Egypt.

These measures include debt relief and loan guarantees to Egypt, totalling some US$2 billion, plans by international financial institutions to modernise and stabilise the economies of the two countries, efforts to create incentives for US investment in both countries and an initiative to promote better regional trade integration as well as strengthening trade with the US and Europe.

Mr Obama also had strong words for those who have used violence to suppress peaceful protests, naming Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, either “leaves or is forced from power”, Syria, Bahrain  
and Iran. He stopped short of calling on Bashar al Assad, the Syrian president, to step aside, but said he faced a choice now whether to “lead the transition or get out of the way”.

Iran’s vocal support of demonstrations in the Arab world, only spoke to Tehran’s “hypocrisy", Mr Obama said, since the regime had shown no compunction in suppressing demonstrations at home.

Mr Obama also called on Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president, to “follow through” on his commitments to reform. And in Bahrain, Mr Obama said that while the US was committed to its security, “mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go
away.”