Barack Obama throws full US support behind Middle East uprisings


President unveils shift in US policy towards Arab countries
‘Status quo not sustainable,’ he warns region’s autocracies
Sets out two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Tells Syria’s Assad to lead transition or ‘get out of way’

Ewen MacAskill in Washington

US President Barack Obama delivers an address on events in the Middle East
Barack Obama delivers his speech on the Middle East at the US state department in Washington on Thursday. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA
Barack Obama has sought to realign American policy on the Middle East, pledging to shift from decades of support for autocratic regimes to backing for pro-democracy movements, and setting out the shape of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Facing criticism that the US has repeatedly been behind the curve in response to the Arab spring, Obama promised a “new chapter” in US diplomacy. He placed Washington on the side of popular uprisings not only in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya but also in Syria and, for the first time, in Bahrain – a longtime American ally.
“The status quo is not sustainable,” Obama said, referring to Arab autocracies and to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
On the eve of a visit by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to the White House, Obama showed frustration with the lack of any progress towards peace by setting out broadly what a future Palestinian state may look like, based on the border that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation,” he said.
While his speech might be seen to tilt the US marginally towards the Palestinians, he tempered this by rejecting a Palestinian attempt to seek de facto independence at the UN in September, dismissing it as merely a “symbolic” move.
Netanyahu said he appreciated Obama’s peace message but rejected the “indefensible” 1967 borders, expressing his unhappiness at the prospect of Israel not having control of security extending over the West Bank to Jordan. A Palestinian state should not be established at the “expense of Israel’s existence”, he said.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, welcomed Obama’s effort to instigate fresh negotiations with Israel. Elsewhere in the Arab world, the reaction was mixed, with some commentators saying Obama had gone beyond his Cairo speech and others judging it uninspired.
Conservatives in the US denounced it, with Mitt Romney, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination to take on Obama for the White House next year, saying the president “has thrown Israel under the bus”.
The tone of the speech at the state department in Washington, the first major one on the Middle East since Cairo in 2009, was intended to suggest that the US is turning its back on its long-term policy of supporting dictatorships in the Middle East to guarantee oil supplies and instead will embrace democracy and commitment to human rights.
Obama spoke of the extraordinary changes in the Middle East over the past six months and lined the US up behind the popular movements that began with the death of a Tunisian street vendor.
“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 … After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be,” he said.
But there is a limit to how much the US is prepared to shift, with not a single line about Saudi Arabia, an autocracy that has made no significant attempt at reform but which is one of America’s main oil suppliers. The speech was timed so that it could be watched live in the Middle East, with the state department offering simultaneous translations in Arabic and Farsi.
“For six months, we have witnessed an extraordinary change take place in the Middle East and North Africa,” Obama said. “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.”
One of these could be Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. The day after the US imposed sanctions directly on Assad, Obama stopped short of calling on him to leave office, as he has done with the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
He did, however, increase pressure on him. “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,” Obama said.
The US president has been accused of inconsistency in engaging in military action in Libya but standing back in Syria. Accusations of inconsistency were also applied over Bahrain, where the US has a big naval base and which Washington has largely refrained from criticising, in spite of a bloody crackdown on protesters. “We have insisted publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away,” Obama said.
On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Obama set out the parameters of a possible peace settlement. The White House has been waiting for the Israelis and Palestinians to come forward with a deal but, frustrated at the lack of movement, Obama proposed the outline of an agreement.
“The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine,” he said. “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 said.
The mention of the border with Jordan is significant. Israel has long argued that any peace deal must include it having military control up to the Jordan border.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, the Washington-based liberal lobbying group, said: “J Street wholeheartedly endorses the approach to resolving the conflict outlined today by the president, namely, to address borders and security first.”

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