Obama Says Israeli-Palestinian Peace More Urgent Than Ever

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks at the State Department on U.S. policy in the Middle East in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2011. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama said peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are “more urgent than ever” and for the first time called for a settlement based on the 1967 borders.

While saying the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security is “unshakable,” Obama called on the country to “act boldly to advance a lasting peace.” He said all Palestinians must accept Israel’s legitimacy and forgo an attempt to isolate the Jewish state in the United Nations.

“The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome,” Obama said in an address on U.S. policy amid the upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa.

Obama’s address sought to frame U.S. policy at what he called a “moment of opportunity” created by pro-democracy movements that are sweeping the region and ousted longtime leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. The changes also have brought violent crackdowns against protesters in Syria and Bahrain and an armed revolt in Libya.

Obama tied the broader transformation going on in the region to the need for resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which he said has “cast a shadow over the region” for decades.

More Urgent

“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 than ever,” he said.

Negotiations must be based on the goal of creating a viable Palestinian state and a secure Israel, Obama said.

“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states,” Obama said at the State Department in Washington. “Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a statement, rejected a return to the 1967 borders, “which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines.”


Netanyahu, who is under domestic political pressure from members of his government not to make territorial concessions, said he expects Obama to reaffirm a 2004 statement by the administration of then-President George W. Bush that the final agreement not entail a “full and complete return” to the 1967 borders.

Obama is set to meet with Netanyahu tomorrow at the White House. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wrote in an opinion article published in the New York Times that, in the absence of negotiations, the Palestinians would unilaterally seek United Nations recognition of an independent state within the 1967 borders.

The 1967 boundaries with mutually agreed swaps have always been a frame of reference to settle issues over territory, said Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“It’s pretty consistent with how this crisis is going to be resolved,” he said. “The question is how the president gets Netanyahu and Abbas back to the negotiating table based on a process that tries to tackle borders and security first.”

Policy Movement

Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and to Egypt who is now a professor of Middle Eastern policy studies at Princeton University, said that while it has been assumed that the 1967 borders will form the basis for an agreement, “when you finally get an articulation of U.S. policy, it means something.”

“Policy does evolve incrementally, and this is an incremental step forward,” he said.

About 500,000 Jews have moved to the West Bank and Jerusalem since Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Middle East war. The UN says the settlements are illegal, and the International Committee of the Red Cross says they breach the Fourth Geneva Convention governing actions on occupied territory.

Israel says the settlements don’t fall under the convention because the territory wasn’t recognized as belonging to any country before the 1967 war, in which Israel prevailed, and therefore isn’t occupied.

Malka said Obama’s language on the peace process was more robust than expected because he called for a specific framework of negotiations to deal directly with borders and security as opposed to a more comprehensive approach that dealt with all the outstanding issues.

Further Negotiations

Obama said the status of Jerusalem and agreement on the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to the new nation should be determined once the stalled talks resume.

“They’re issues that are less symbolic, more practical,” Malka said. “The president believes there’s a greater chance of reaching an agreement on borders and security at this point.”

Obama said both sides will have to move from entrenched positions to achieve an agreement.

For Israel, “the dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation,” he said. “For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure.”

Kurtzer said the president offered even-handed rebukes and expressions of support to both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

“Both sides are going to find parts of this speech that they’re not going to like, and both should find parts that they do like,” he said.

Economic Development

On the broader issues in the Middle East and North Africa, Obama said economic development must follow political reforms in the region, promising $2 billion in loan guarantees and debt forgiveness for Egypt and measures to stabilize Tunisia’s economy.

The democracy movements sweeping from Yemen to Tunisia and the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden are opening a “new chapter in American diplomacy,” Obama said.

“Just as democratic revolutions can be triggered by a lack of individual opportunity, successful democratic transitions depend upon an expansion of growth and broad-based prosperity,” he said.

The aid for Egypt includes $1 billion in loan guarantees through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and cancellation of $1 billion in debt, about a third of what Egypt owes the U.S. An additional several billion dollars’ worth of financing for Egypt and Tunisia would come from multilateral development banks,

U.S. Interests

Obama said that for decades the U.S. has pursued core interests in the region, such as countering terrorism, stemming the flow of nuclear weapons and standing up for Israel’s security along with pursuing Middle East peace.

While those goals remain important, he said, the U.S. “must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuits of these interests will not fill an empty stomach.”

Obama said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must choose to lead a transition to greater freedom or “get out of the way.”

“The Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens” in response to pro-democracy demonstrations, Obama said.

He also called on U.S. ally Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, to “create the conditions for dialogue” on the demands of anti-government protesters and for the government of Yemen to follow through on commitments to transfer power.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE