In a speech this morning at the White House, President Barack Obama sought to “push the reset button” to the U.S.’s policy in the Middle East in light of the wave of political changes that have been in the region. Comparing the pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other nations to seminal events in American history — the real Boston Tea Party, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus — Obama stated the US faces a “historic opportunity” to support its principles of universal rights including free speech and economic and political reforms that “can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.”
For the first time, Obama publicly called on Israelis and Palestinians to seek a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders:
“At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent that ever.
The President discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need to continue the peace process after reviewing the pro-democracy movements that have occurred throughout the Middle East and North Africa since a Tunisian vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire after a police officer confiscated his cart.
In contrast to a 2009 speech in Cairo when he “addressed himself to the Islamic world as a whole, trying to heal a rift with the United States,” Obama today described the Middle East as a complex place, where different responses to different countries may be required: The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have been followed by other regimes — Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria — taking violent and repressive measures against protesters.
In addition to saying that the US will “promote reform across the region, and … support transitions to democracy,” Obama underscored the importance of advancing “economic development for nations that transition to democracy” as “the tipping point” for many countries where “the more constant concern of putting food on the table and providing for a family.” An initial set of initiatives will seek to improve the financial standing of Tunisia and Egypt. Egypt will be given debt forgiveness of up to $1 billion and will be guaranteed another $1 billion in borrowing for financing infrastructure and job creation.
Obama again invoked American history and ideals at the end of his speech. A “rebellion against an empire” indeed heralded the birth of our nation, and a “painful civil war that extended freedom and dignity to those who were enslaved” extended “certain inalienable rights” to all American citizens.
The President’s speech is sure to set off “several intense days of debate over American policy in the region,” says the New York Times. Obama is to meet Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the White House on Friday; former Sen. George Mitchell, Obama’s peace envoy, resigned from his position last week.
Some responses from the Middle East to Obama speech via Al-Jazeera:
Al Jazeera’s Nisreen El-Shamayleh, reporting from Jerusalem, said: “In different parts of his speech Obama shifted from a view closer to the Israeli approach to negotiations and at other times closer to the Palestinian approach.
…”Obama more importantly talked about the status quo and how it was unsustainable. That is bad news for [Binyamin] Netanyahu [the Israeli prime minister].
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from Cairo, said the speech basically translated to “democracy good, repression bad”.
“He slapped a few American allies, saying if people want change you can’t stand in the way,” Fisher said.
The Guardian describes Netanyahu’s response following Obama’s speech:
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Thursday Israel would object to any withdrawal to “indefensible” borders, adding he expected Washington to allow it to keep major settlement blocs in any peace deal.
In a statement after President Barack Obama’s speech outlining Middle East strategy, Netanyahu said before heading to Washington that “the viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of Israel’s existence”.
“That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of US commitments made to Israel in 2004,” the statement added, alluding to a previous letter from Washington suggesting Israel could keep larger settlement blocs as part a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Here is the reaction from Libya, again via the Guardian:
“The Libyan regime didn’t watch it. Government spokesmen weren’t interested and it wasn’t on state TV.”
Did you watch Obama’s speech? What is your reaction to his statement about the Mideast peace process, the Israeli-Palestine conflict and the future US response to uprisings in countries such as Bahrain and Syria?
Photo by Chuck Kennedy (Official White House photo) (The Official White House Photostream on Flickr) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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