As sweeping change rocks the Arab world, U.S. President Barack Obama boosted Palestinian hopes for an independent state by pointedly calling on Israel to regard its 1967 borders as the basis for a neighbouring Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.
"The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states," Mr. Obama said Thursday, apparently the first time a U.S. president has drawn a line in the sand by publicly using the "1967 lines" phrase.
Mr. Obama's deliberate use of the phrase touched off a furor even if the basic outlines of a peace settlement remain unchanged.
It came in a wide-ranging speech that staked out American support for democratic reform in the Middle East that served notice on Arab dictators - allies as well as adversaries - that they need to heed the call for change or face ouster.
"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 [Arab-Israeli]conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever," the President said in a speech timed for evening television audiences throughout the Middle East.
Infuriated, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected any "full and complete return" to the pre-1967 frontiers, citing "new realities on the ground," by which he means the sprawling Jewish suburbs ranging east of Jerusalem and scattered settlements occupying strategic points throughout the West Bank. Israel defeated Arab nations in 1967, seizing Gaza, Old Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
The Israeli leader faces Mr. Obama today in the Oval Office in another of the often-tense sessions between the two men.
Although the use of the phrase "1967 lines" will irk many Israelis and delight Palestinians, the basic framework of an independent Palestine comprised of Gaza and the West Bank with land swaps to accommodate major Jewish settlements has long been American policy.
"We all knew it was going to be there," said Dan Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. "But it hadn't been formally articulated until now." Stating this principle was one of the things Palestinian leaders have long demanded and Israeli leaders have long dreaded.
But even as he ramped up the pressure on Israel to make concessions for peace, Mr. Obama also reaffirmed America's unwavering support for the Jewish state and warned Palestinians against attempting to "delegitimize" it.
As he alternately cajoled and threatened the region's leaders to make concessions and embrace change, he seemed to accept that the long-standing U.S. policy of staunchly backing even ruthless regimes if they were loyal allies of major oil suppliers was also outdated.
"After decades of accepting the world as it is, in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be," Mr. Obama said.
The sweeping change of the Arab Spring has unsettled Israel, where a cold peace with Egypt and the standoff with Syria have endured for decades.
In a combative statement just before he boarded his Washington-bound plane, Mr. Netanyahu called on Mr. Obama to accept promises made by his Republican predecessor George W. Bush in 2004.
"Those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines, which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centres in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]beyond those lines," Mr. Netanyahu said, although the statement seemingly ignored Mr. Obama's explicit reference to "mutually agreed swaps."
Still, Israeli has an iron-fisted final say. As the party occupying the territories in question, Israel's agreement is an effective veto against any deal it doesn't like, said Mr. Kurtzer, Washington's ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005.
Mr. Obama's use of the charged phase "1967 lines" aroused fierce partisan criticism at home.
"President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus," said Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. "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."
The furor over that small section of the speech that dealt with the always vexed Palestinian-Israeli conflict threatened to eclipse its wide-ranging effort to recast U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Delivered in the ornate Benjamin Franklin room at the State Department, the President said the brave throngs of protesters in the Arab Spring uprisings have already toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and threatened to oust others. They have "achieved more in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades."
Mr. Obama vowed to back reform. "Even as we acknowledge that each country is different, we will need to speak honestly about the principles that we believe in, with friend and foe alike. Our message is simple: If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States."
It amounted to a marked departure with previous American policy which, since the Second World War, has backed Arab rulers no matter how ruthless as long as they were allied with and friendly to the United States. Now, Mr. Obama said, principle would drive policy.
That pledge remains untested. For instance, it remains unclear what Mr. Obama is prepared to do should the Arab Spring spread to key allies and oil suppliers such as Saudi Arabia which, so far, has crushed even tentative pro-democracy efforts, both at home and in neighbouring Bahrain.
The President dismissed the calls of Islamic extremists who call for holy war - jihad - against the West. He said the raid by U.S special forces that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan had dealt a "huge blow" to al-Qaeda and dismissed the terrorist leader, saying he was "a mass murderer, not a martyr."
Obama to al-Assad: Change or 'get out of the way'
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can either lead a transition to democracy or, in Barack Obama's words, "get out of the way."
The U.S. President warned Mr. al-Assad that his country would face increasing isolation if he did not address his people's calls for a transition to democracy. Syria has maintained a ferocious crackdown on anti-government protesters that human rights activists say has killed at least 750 people.
Mr. Obama, however, did not explicitly call for Mr. al-Assad's removal.
The Assad regime must permit peaceful protests, release political prisoners and give access to human rights monitors, Mr. Obama said. The U.S. administration imposed sanctions on Mr. al-Assad and members of his inner circle this week.
The Syrian government condemned those sanctions on Wednesday, saying they were one in a series "U.S. regional policies serving Israel." The report added that the move "would not affect Syria's independent choices and steadfastness."
The U.S. imposition of sanctions on Tuesday represented an escalation of pressure on Mr. al-Assad's government, which has detained thousands and deployed the army in at least four towns and cities across the country to crush dissent.
European nations imposed sanctions on Syria two weeks ago, and the European Union is pushing for another round of sanctions that would target Mr. al-Assad.
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