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Obama sees 'moment of opportunity' in Middle East

President Obama on Thursday called out American friends in the Middle East for their treatment of peaceful protesters, naming Bahrain and Yemen along with Syria as states he said must yield to the aspirations of their people.

While explicitly stating an American commitment to the security of Israel, Obama also called upon Israelis and Palestinians to swap land along the general lines of the borders that were in place before the 1967 war in the interests of achieving peace.

The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, he said, and "reach their potential" in a sovereign and contiguous state.

"The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace," Obama told American diplomats and foreign service officers gathered at the State Department over the noon hour. "The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation."

In a nearly hourlong address, Obama lifted the curtain on his worldview and how it has changed this spring as protests sweep the Middle East and North Africa, and the countries of Tunisia and Egypt transition to what Western leaders hope will be democratic regimes.

He praised the nonviolent nature of this spring's movements and drew allusions to the American civil rights movement that brought the country to the point of electing him its first black president. He was tougher on the Syrian leadership than he had been before, and more clear about the standards for future U.S. cooperation with groups and countries in the region.

But the president did not specifically mention Saudi Arabia and the movement for freedom in that country, whose leadership has been so strategically important to U.S. interests in the region, leaving tougher words for private conversations.

Two years after his introductory address to the Muslim world, Thursday's remarks came as a new overture to Arab leaders and, especially, their people in the wake of popular uprisings.

The U.S. will keep its commitments to longstanding friends, Obama said. But if the United States is to have credibility, he said, it must acknowledge that "friends" in the region have not acted consistently with the principles for which the U.S. must stand.

"That is true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power," Obama said. "And that is true, today, in Bahrain."

Yemeni leadership has lent some support to U.S. counterterrorism efforts within its borders, and Bahrain is the host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet stationed at that strategically crucial point in the region.

In Syria, where the government has shot demonstrators, Obama said President Bashar Assad has a clear choice to either lead a transition to democracy or "get out of the way."

The U.S. will lend economic aid to nations in their transitions, said Obama, and will lend moral support to the drive for self-determination.

But that applies in Israel too, he said, predicting that the changes sweeping the region will increase the urgency for Israelis and Palestinians to build a lasting peace.

He made it clear, as his administration has in recent days, that he will oppose the Palestinian’s unilateral attempts to gain recognition of its statehood from the United Nations.

Peace will come through talks between the two sides, he said.

The U.S. believes the negotiations should result in two states, said Obama, 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 recognized borders are established for both states," he said. "The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state."

Israel must have the right to defend itself, he said, while the withdrawal of Israeli forces to new borders "should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, nonmilitarized state."

He suggested nothing specific about the future of Jerusalem or the right of Palestinians to return to the lands where they formerly lived, saying only that his suggested progress on territory and security should serve as a "foundation" for resolving those issues.

cparsons@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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