President Obama on Thursday delivered a sweeping address on the U.S. role in the Middle East, promising support for democratic uprisings in the region.
“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,” Obama said in a speech at the State Department, where officials were providing simultaneous translations in Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew. “There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity. Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise. But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.”
The White House had already previewed many of the key themes of the president's speech, but the address was still not without its surprises. The biggest one was Obama's endorsement of a Palestinian demand for the borders of its future state to be based on those that existed before the Six Day War of 1967, in which Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.
"Our commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable," Obama said. "But precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace."
Israel has said that an endorsement of the pre-1967 borders would unfairly prejudice negotiations, and Obama's remarks are all but certain to be met with anger abroad and at home from Israeli leaders and their supporters.
The president’s inner circle was said to be deeply divided over whether Obama should formally endorse the borders. “That he did so,” the New York Times reports, “sent a strong signal that the United States expected Israel – as well as the Palestinians – to make concessions to restart peace talks that have been stalled since September.”
But Obama’s tough love wasn’t reserved for only Israel, the Associated Press notes. The president also cautioned that the recent power-sharing agreement between the mainstream Palestinian faction and Hamas “raises profound and legitimate” issues for Israel. “How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” Obama said. “In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.”