Anne Penketh: Obama's comments trigger firestorm

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President Barack Obama. Photo / AP
President Barack Obama. Photo / AP

President Obama had multiple audiences for his long-awaited speech on the Arab Spring sweeping through the Middle East, coming six months after the self-immolation of a Tunisian stall-holder brought about the fall of the first despotic regime in the region.

Addressing Arab states themselves, but also Israel, Obama stressed his Administration's support for political reform and human rights and pledged economic rewards for countries that transition towards democracy. He surveyed the regional turmoil country by country - with the notable exception of oil-rich ally Saudi Arabia - and warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he should either lead a transition or "get out of the way". But the most controversial part came at the end of his 45-minute address, when against all expectations he discussed the Middle East peace process in some detail.

"There are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward. I disagree," he said.

But what came next triggered a firestorm in both Washington and Tel Aviv.

"The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognised borders are established for both states," he went on. The very mention of the Administration's support for a settlement that would restore Israel's pre-war 1967 borders, while coupled with territory swaps, set the scene for a battle with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was about to set off on a visit to the US.

In Europe, ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories with a withdrawal to 1967 borders remains a fundamental demand. But in Washington, the reaction was harsh from Republican opponents. The leading Republican presidential contender in next year's elections, Mitt Romney, accused the President of throwing Israel "under the bus".

"He has disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace. He has also violated a first principle of American foreign policy, which is to stand firm by our friends."

Other leading Republicans joined Romney in attacking Obama, and Netanyahu's office swiftly rejected the President's statement, saying that an Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders, including from the Jordan river valley, would leave the country "indefensible". It seems likely that Obama would have co-ordinated his speech with King Abdullah of Jordan, with whom he discussed the Israel/Palestinian conflict on Tuesday. At that meeting the President made clear his intention to keep pressing for a return to negotiations, despite the sudden resignation of his envoy George Mitchell earlier in the week which led many observers to conclude that the peace process was consigned to the dustbin of history.

Obama took care to balance his remarks with criticism of the Palestinian Authority's plan to seek a vote on Palestinian statehood in the United Nations General Assembly in September. "Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state," he warned. He also went out of his way to stress US commitment to Israeli security. He also underlined the difficulties for Israel posed by the recent agreement between the mainstream Fatah movement and the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza, which does not recognise Israel's right to exist.

But with Netanyahu holding a White House meeting with the President during his visit which will be dominated by the annual American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, the only thing the headline writers will remember now is Barack vs Bibi. Tomorrow, Obama is to address the gathering of the Jewish lobby, one day before Netanyahu speaks at the conference. Then on Tuesday, Netanyahu addresses Congress.

Meanwhile, it emerged that an email had been sent from the AIPAC organisers urging participants to react to the conference speeches "in only the most positive manner". The US newspaper Politico interpreted the stricture to mean that the audience shouldn't boo Obama. And that was even before his speech on the Middle East.

- NZ Herald

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