FULL SPEECH: Obama on Israel, Middle East

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

“A Moment of Opportunity”

U.S. Department of State

As Prepared for Delivery –

I want to thank Hillary Clinton, who has traveled so much these last six months that she is approaching a new landmark – one million frequent flyer miles. I count on Hillary every day, and I believe that she will go down as of the finest Secretaries of State in our nation’s history.

The State Department is a fitting venue to mark a new chapter in American diplomacy. For six months, we have witnessed an extraordinary change take place in the Middle East and North Africa.  Square by square; town by town; country by country; the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights. Two leaders have stepped aside. More may follow. And though these countries may be a great distance from our shores, we know that our own future is bound to this region by the forces of economics and security; history and faith.

Today, I would like to talk about this change – the forces that are driving it, and how we can respond in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security. Already, we have done much to shift our foreign policy following a decade defined by two costly conflicts. After years of war in Iraq, we have removed 100,000 American troops and ended our combat mission there. In Afghanistan, we have broken the Taliban’s momentum, and this July we will begin to bring our troops home and continue transition to Afghan lead. And after years of war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, we have dealt al Qaeda a huge blow by killing its leader – Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden was no martyr. He was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate – an insistence that Muslims had to take up arms against the West, and that violence against men, women and children was the only path to change. He rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims in favor of violent extremism; his agenda focused on what he could destroy – not what he could build.

Bin Laden and his murderous vision won some adherents. But even before his death, al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life. By the time we found bin Laden, al Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands.

That story of self-determination began six months ago in Tunisia. On December 17, a young vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi was devastated when a police officer confiscated his cart. This was not unique. It is the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world – the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity. Only this time, something different happened. After local officials refused to hear his complaint, this young man who had never been particularly active in politics went to the headquarters of the provincial government, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire.

Sometimes, in the course of history, the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has built up for years. In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat. So it was in Tunisia, as that vendor’s act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country.  Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands. And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home – day after day, week after week, until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power.

The story of this Revolution, and the ones that followed, should not have come as a surprise. The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not.  In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of the few. In too many countries, a citizen like that young vendor had nowhere to turn – no honest judiciary to hear his case; no independent media to give him voice; no credible political party to represent his views; no free and fair election where he could choose his leader.

This lack of self determination – the chance to make of your life what you will – has applied to the region’s economy as well. Yes, some nations are blessed with wealth in oil and gas, and that has led to pockets of prosperity. But in a global economy based on knowledge and innovation, no development strategy can be based solely upon what comes out of the ground. Nor can people reach their potential when you cannot start a business without paying a bribe.

In the face of these challenges, too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half century after the end of colonialism. Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression. Divisions of tribe, ethnicity and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else.

But the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and diversion won’t work anymore. Satellite television and the Internet provide a window into the wider world – a world of astonishing progress in places like India, Indonesia and Brazil. Cell phones and social networks allow young people to connect and organize like never before. A new generation has emerged. And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied.

In Cairo, we heard the voice of the young mother who said, “It’s like I can finally breathe fresh air for the first time.”

In Sanaa, we heard the students who chanted, “The night must come to an end.”

In Benghazi, we heard the engineer who said, “Our words are free now. It’s a feeling you can’t explain.”

In Damascus, we heard the young man who said, “After the first yelling, the first shout, you feel dignity.”

Those shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region. And through the moral force of non-violence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades.

Of course, change of this magnitude does not come easily. In our day and age – a time of 24 hour news cycles, and constant communication – people expect the transformation of the region to be resolved in a matter of weeks. But it will be years before this story reaches its end. Along the way, there will be good days, and bad days. In some places, change will be swift; in others, gradual. And as we have seen, calls for change may give way to fierce contests for power.

The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds. For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce, and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.

We will continue to do these things, with the firm belief that America’s interests are not hostile to peoples’ hopes; they are essential to them. We believe that no one benefits from a nuclear arms race in the region, or al Qaeda’s brutal attacks. People everywhere would see their economies crippled by a cut off in energy supplies. As we did in the Gulf War, we will not tolerate aggression across borders, and we will keep our commitments to friends and partners.

Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind. Moreover, 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. Given that this mistrust runs both ways – as Americans have been seared by hostage taking, violent rhetoric, and terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of our citizens – a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and Muslim communities.

That’s why, two years ago in Cairo, I began to broaden our engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. I believed then – and I believe now – that we have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self determination of individuals. The status quo is not sustainable. Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder.

So we face an historic opportunity. 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. 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.

As we do, we must proceed with a sense of humility. It is not America that put people into the streets of Tunis and Cairo – it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and must determine their outcome. Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short term interests do not align perfectly with our long term vision of the region. But we can – and will – speak out for a set of core principles – principles that have guided our response to the events over the past six months:

The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.

We support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders – whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.

And finally, we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.

Obama: 1967 borders with swaps should serve as basis for negotiations

President Obama said the future state of Palestine should be based on the pre-1967 border with mutually agreed land swaps with Israel.

In his address Thursday afternoon on U.S. policy in the Middle East, Obama told an audience at the State Department that the borders of a “sovereign, nonmilitarized” Palestinian state “should be based on 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”

Negotiations should focus first on territory and security, and then the difficult issues of the status of Jerusalem and what to do about the rights of Palestinian refugees can be breached, Obama said.

“Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and secuertiy does not mean it will be easy to come back to the table,” Obama said, noting the new unity deal between Fatah and Hamas, a group foreswarn to Israel’s destruction.

“How can one negotiate with a party that shows itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” Obama said. “Palestinians have to provide a credible answer to that question.”

The U.S. president did not announce a specific initiative to bring Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table.

The speech, which focused mostly on the Arab democracy movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world, marked the first time Obama formally declared that the pre-Six Day War borders should form the basis of negotiations.

Obama’s Middle East speech draws ire and support [VIDEO]

In his speech at the State Department on Thursday, President Barack Obama addressed the rapidly changing situation in the Middle East and put forward Israel’s pre-1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations that would yield a future Palestinian state.

Even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is set to meet with Obama in Washington on Friday, released a statement disputing most of what Obama said about the Israel-Palestinian situation,  the immediate reaction among American Jewish leaders and Israel-related organizations to the speech was mixed. Groups on the left applauded the president’s outline while hoping for further action. Some right-leaning organizations expressed surprise and disappointment at the president’s promotion of the pre-1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations—even as they praised Obama’s clear opposition to the Palestinian plan to seek a declaration of statehood along those same borders from the United Nations’ General Assembly in September.

The pro-peace advocacy group J Street, which was founded to push for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, applauded the president’s speech. “The overall tone and overall framing of the current urgency of the situation we were very, very pleased with,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, said in an interview.

The plan that Obama outlined would treat the 1967 borders as a basic outline for a Palestinian state, and calls for mutually agreeable land swaps to achieve both security for Israel and a sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state. “That’s exactly the approach that J Street called for in December,” Ben-Ami said.

In an advertisement that appeared in Israeli papers this week, 18 Israeli generals, 5 former ambassadors and many others signed a similarly themed statement. “Recognizing a Palestinian State Based On the 1967 Borders is Vital for Israel’s Existence,” the English version of the ad read. With the help of $65,000 raised from over 1,000 donors, J Street reprinted the ad in the New York Times on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu called the 1967 lines “indefensible,” and many American Jewish organizations echoed Netanyahu’s assessment in their remarks.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center, called the plan a return to “1967 Auschwitz Borders,” and took strong issue with Obama’s call for basing negotiations on Israel’s pre-1967 borders, with mutually agreed upon land swaps. Hier called such a possibility, while Hamas shares power in the Palestinian territories, living in a “fantasy world.”

“We have all these diplomats all around the world trying to force Israel into a deal with Hamas, when Hamas this very day and this very week has made clear they will never, ever recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel. So who are we kidding?”

Hier said the Auschwitz reference came from a 1969 statement by Abba Eban, then foreign minister of Israel. Eban told Der Spiegel: “We have openly said that the map will never again be the same as on June 4, 1967. For us, this is a matter of security and of principles. The June map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger. I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz.”

“I don’t like to use the Auschwitz terminology, I don’t like to make that comparison,” Hier said. “I use it here to point out that Israel’s borders have to be defensible.”

Story continues after the jump.

Video courtesy of WhiteHouse.gov

Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University, called the Auschwitz reference a “cheap and offensive trivialization.” Berenbaum said he is a good friend of Hier’s and respects him, but emphasized Hier “knows better.”

“The entire modern Jewish history since the Holocaust has been toward the empowerment of the Jewish people. And if we are to perceive even for a moment that we are as disempowered as the Jews were at Auschwitz, we are denying all of our post-1945 Jewish history, and that is an insult to everything the Jewish community has achieved in terms of military, political and economic power,” Berenbaum said.

“Answer one question,” Berenbaum added. “How many tanks did Jews have at Auschwitz? How many planes? Missiles, bombs, troops?”

Bnai B’rith International also issued a statement commending the speech while expressing concern at the President’s reliance on pre-1967 borders, but other Jewish organizations did not share those reservations.

“We support the President’s vision of a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement with strong security provisions for Israel, and a non-militarized Palestinian state,” read a statement issued by Robert G. Sugarman, ADL National Chair, and Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. “We appreciate his direct rejection of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and his understanding that the Hamas-Fatah agreement poses major problems for Israel.”

The ADL statement commended Obama’s affirmation of the moral and strategic connections between Israel and the United States, and said the speech was a welcome measure of Obama’s Israel barometer.

“This Administration has come a long way in two years in terms of understanding of the nuances involved in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace and a better understanding of the realities and challenges confronting Israel.” Almost exactly two years ago, Obama made his first speech, in Cairo, on the Middle East, which was seen as an overture to the Muslim world, but enraged many supporters of Israel.

The Israel Project, a pro-Israel education organization which has called the Palestinian plan to unilaterally seek recognition of a state on the 1967 borders in the United Nations’ General Assembly in September “a clear attempt to delegitimize and attack Israel,” found much that was praiseworthy in Obama’s speech.

“He told Palestinians that they should return to negotiations rather than seek empty declarations at the U.N. that will gain them nothing. That is an important marker that the United States will oppose that effort,” Israel Project Senior Director Alan Elsner said.

Elsner also expressed appreciation for Obama’s assessment of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and which recently entered into a unity government with the Fatah faction that controls parts of the West Bank. “President Obama’s recognition that Israel should not be expected to negotiate with an organization dedicated to its destruction was constructive,” Elsner said.

There was disagreement among American Jewish political leaders about whether the president’s speech put the onus for future action on the Israelis or on the Palestinians.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, said that the president’s speech “undermines our special relationship with Israel and weakens our ally’s ability to defend itself.”

“By keeping the burden and thus the spotlight on Israel, the President is only giving the Palestinian Authority more incentive to carry on its unhelpful game of sidestepping negotiations and failing to put an end to terrorism,” Cantor said in an emailed statement. “Creating another Palestinian terror state on Israel’s borders is something that none of us want.”

California Congressman Howard Berman, ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, came to the exact opposite conclusion. He said the president’s speech “puts the ball squarely in the Palestinian court.”

“The Palestinians must resolve their Hamas problem once and for all: either jettison Hamas or do the seemingly impossible and change them into a respectable, anti-violence organization that recognizes Israel and accepts all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements as the basis for going forward,” Berman said in a statement. “The Palestinians must show they’re serious about peace-making. That means no games at the UN, no partnership with terrorists, no threats to take Israel to the International Criminal Court, and no boycott of negotiations. When the current phase of Palestinian posturing ends, we can begin to address some of the serious issues the President and others have raised.”

For its part, Americans for Peace Now put a statement on it Web site from the group’s President and CEO Debra DeLee welcoming Obama’s “pragmatic” approach to the recent reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. 

“It is indeed incumbent on the Palestinians to provide a credible answer to those who suggest that Israel cannot negotiate peace with a unity government. As we have long argued, any Palestinian government should be judged by its actions and positions, not it composition,” DeLee said.

While many felt the president didn’t say much that was new regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what was significant was that he laid out policies and motivations clearly.

“It’s an important shift in the articulation of American foreign policy, which has rested on the belief that the 1967 border is the basis for a two-state solution, but has not been formally declared in this explicit fashion,” said David Myers, chairman of UCLA’s history department. “At the same time, it must be noted that every serious peace proposal rests on this very proposition, so it is not new in that regard. Moreover, it is not clear whether it will make any difference unless the President makes clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that it’s no longer possible to sit on his hands and do nothing.”

Obama’s speech urged the Israelis and Palestinians to solve territorial and security issues first, even though the “wrenching and emotional” disputes over the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees remained unresolved.

Netanyahu took issue with this, saying that the U.S., under President George W. Bush,  had committed in 2004 to a solution that would “ensure Israel’s well-being as a Jewish state by making clear that Palestinian refugees will settle in a future Palestinian state rather than in Israel.”

“Without a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem outside the borders of Israel,” Netanyahu’s statement said, “no territorial concession will bring peace.”

Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, said he believes the speech was addressed not toward the Middle East, but toward the Washington establishment that needs to understand “we are working against the clock.”

“His message was that America needs to understand the moment in history that we are all witnessing in the Mideast,” Al-Marayati said, “and unless we catch up with where events are taking the region, we are going to be left out in terms of being of any relevance in the region,” Al-Marayati said. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is “probably going to be one of the last things resolved or addressed vis a vis the Arab Spring,” he continued. “As we see more dictators being toppled, there is going to be more of a desire by the people of the regions to see a resolution to [the conflict with Israel], and the United States and the Israeli government are both going to be faced with difficult decisions.”

The Arab Spring has proven that the power lies with the people, Al-Marayati said, and he believes “the will of the people has been determined—to have change without resorting to political violence. And anyone that continues to use ideological violence as an instrument of change in time will also be irrelevant.”

That is why he believes Hamas will be marginalized “unless they come to grips with reality – a two-state solution,” Al-Marayati said.

Obama’s will speak at the annual AIPAC conference next week, where he is likely reveal more details about how he will back up the policies he articulated Thursday at the State Department.