Obama warns Arab dictators and demands Israel pulls back

Some were surprised that the President spelled out a preference for Israeli borders that existed before the Six-Day War
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The Independent US

President Barack Obama last night insisted that the popular uprisings in the Middle East should inspire, not impede, a peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians and proposed that it should be based on Israel accepting its pre-1967 borders.

"The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation," Mr Obama said bluntly. The Prime Minster of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, will hold talks with him in Washington today.

President Obama made the remarks as part of an address in which he said that the US must commit itself unequivocally to nurture and support the Arab Spring in the Middle East, backing human rights for all in the region and aiding countries that make the transition from repression to democracy.

Mr Obama promised help specifically to Egypt and Tunisia, where the popular uprisings first began. Egypt, he said, would be forgiven $1bn in debt and extended another $1bn in loan guarantees. He warned, however, that the process of change, which has already brought so much turmoil to the region, may take years to play out.

The President, speaking for 40 minutes, cast the challenge now faced by America in the region in the context of the courage shown by the street vendor in Tunisia whose confrontation with the authorities ignited the revolution in that country. "We face a historic opportunity," he said. "We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator."

Delivered at the State Department in Washington, the address sought in part to confront criticism that there has been an incoherent response from the White House to the turbulence since it first erupted and Mr Obama conceded that by moving instinctively first to defend its own national interests in the region, America has fallen short.

"A strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind," he said.

"Failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our own interests at their expense... A failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and Muslim communities."

With its apologetic tone, that passage in his speech may serve to bolster anti-American sentiment in the region while also infuriating conservatives in the US who think no American president should ever say sorry for anything. Some were surprised, meanwhile, that Mr Obama spelled out a preference for Israeli borders that existed before the Six-Day War 1967 in which Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. It will be seen as a significant shift in US policy and will probably anger Mr Netanyahu. The two men already barely get on. Following the speech, Mr Netanyahu said Israel could never withdraw to borders that were "indefensible".

That Mr Obama has made no progress on the issue since taking office was reflected in his remarks. Under his administration, the US "has worked with the parties and the international community for over two years to end this conflict, yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks. The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on for decades, and sees a stalemate," he complained.

"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, while he acknowledged that new obstacles have been thrown up, not least the recent coming together into a unity Palestinian government of Fatah and Hamas, the latter considered a terror organisation by Washington.

Paying tribute to the popular uprisings that have brought change already in the Middle East, Mr Obama said: "the people of the region have achieved more in six months than terrorists have achieved in decades".

Mr Obama singled out Libya as a country that had reacted with violence to the calls for change, saying that Muammar Gaddafi had "launched a war against his own people, promising to hunt them down like rats". As for the unrest in Syria, he stopped short of demanding that President Bashar al-Assad leave office. "He can lead that transition, or get out of the way," he said.

War of words: Obama's attack on Arab leaders


"The Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens... The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way."


"Bahrain is a long-standing partner... Nevertheless, we have insisted publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens... The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail."


"If America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for change... President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power."


"Gaddafi does not have control over his country. The opposition has organised a legitimate and credible Interim Council. And when Gaddafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end."


"For the Palestinians, efforts to de-legitimise Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state."