Obama referred to two U.S. partners, Yemen and Bahrain, although his speech did not mention Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich American ally that has helped neighboring Bahrain crack down on anti-government demonstrators.
The president pressed Israel, in unusually frank terms, to reach a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, citing the boundaries in place on the eve of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War as the starting point for negotiation about borders.
The formulation goes beyond principles outlined by President George W. Bush, who stated during his first term that “it is unrealistic to expect” Israel to pull back to the 1967 boundaries, which were based on cease-fire lines established in 1949. Obama said the negotiations about final borders, which he indicated may include land swaps to accommodate Israel’s large settlement blocs, should result in “a viable Palestine, a secure Israel.”
The president said a “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces” from the West Bank should be carried out in coordination with Palestinian security forces. He described a future Palestinian state as “nonmilitarized,” a key Israeli demand.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is set to visit Obama on Friday at the White House, issued a critical statement following the speech, declaring that “the viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state.”
He said the 1967 boundaries are “indefensible and . . . would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines,” using Biblical terms for the West Bank.
Obama acknowledged that the conflict’s most contentious questions — the division of Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital, and the right of Palestinian refugees or their descendants to return to homes in Israel — would still need to be resolved. But he said moving forward now on the border and security aspects would provide a foundation for settling the two “wrenching and emotional issues” in a “just and fair” manner.
“Precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel must act boldly to advance a lasting peace,” Obama said. “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.”