May 20, 2011 in Nation/World

Obama pushes peace talks

Mideast resolution long overdue, says president
Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington bureau
 
Tags:economy

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama plunged back into efforts to restart Middle East peace talks, pressuring both sides with a set of U.S. principles that appeared to catch Israeli leaders off guard and are likely to set up a tense meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today.

The moves, coming in a speech Thursday that the White House had billed as a major address on the Middle East, reflected a sense of Obama’s impatience as he confronts the region’s numerous problems. Aides said Obama was seeking to put the Israeli-Palestinian issues into the broader context of U.S. support for the uprisings that have challenged autocratic rulers across the Middle East and to emphasize the urgency of resolving some of the region’s problems.

“The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome,” he said.

Obama warned Palestinians they would not achieve statehood through a proposed U.N. resolution, which the Palestinian leadership has been pushing to pass in September.

And he warned Israelis that time is not on their side. “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation,” he said. “A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people, not just one or two leaders, must believe peace is possible.”

Obama’s principles for negotiations contained elements for each side to dislike: He said the two sides should resolve the borders of a future Palestinian state and find ways to guarantee Israel’s security before negotiating over the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. The Palestinians have long objected to separating the issues that way. He also said the Palestinian state should be demilitarized.

But in the immediate aftermath, it was the Israelis who reacted more negatively, focusing on Obama’s declaration that the negotiations should start from Israel’s borders prior to the 1967 war.

The 1967 lines have been used behind closed doors as the basis for negotiations for more than a decade, and the past three U.S. administrations have informally embraced the concept. But Israel has rejected them, and Obama’s remarks were the first time a U.S. president publicly had said that they should be the starting point for talks.

Netanyahu began to fire off objections via his office’s Twitter feed even before boarding his plane for Washington. He pronounced the 1967 lines “indefensible” and said that his nation’s defense “requires an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River” in the West Bank.

Top aides, including National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and senior Mideast adviser Dennis Ross, had argued against laying out U.S. proposals.

But Obama, accepting the arguments of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others, decided that he could use the momentum of change in the Middle East, and that doing so would help convince the Arab world that the administration was on the side of reform.

“He realized that if he offered little or no constructive way forward on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict his broader prescription for reform would seem hollow,” said former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, who heads the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Mideast Peace and was an Obama adviser during the 2008 presidential campaign.

U.S. officials believe they need to show movement in negotiations to prevent other countries from deciding that the peace process was going nowhere. They have been seeking ways to head off an effort by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to win United Nations recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state.

Obama’s remarks on the peace plan came toward the end of a 45-minute address to foreign service officers at the State Department in which he provided his first comprehensive review on the Middle East and North Africa as protests sweep the region and the countries of Tunisia and Egypt transition to what Western leaders hope will be democratic regimes.

He declared an “alignment” of America’s interests with its values of supporting the right to free speech, equality and self-determination – be it in Syria, Yemen or Iran.

But it was the remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that dominated the debate in the speech’s aftermath. Administration officials said they had briefed the Israelis on key proposals in advance, including Obama’s references to the pre-1967 borders.

Israeli government leaders said they were surprised and disappointed by Obama’s words.


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