WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, seeking to capture a moment of epochal change in the Arab world, began a new effort Thursday to break the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, setting out a new starting point for negotiations on the region's most intractable problem.
A day before the arrival in Washington of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Obama declared that the prevailing borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war - adjusted to some degree to account for Israeli settlements in the West Bank - should be the basis of a deal.
While the 1967 borders have long been viewed as the foundation for a peace deal, Obama's formula of land swaps to compensate for disputed territory created a new benchmark for a diplomatic solution.
Obama's statement represented a subtle, but significant, shift in U.S. policy. And it thrust him back into the region's most nettlesome dispute at a time when conditions would seem to make reaching a deal especially difficult.
Israel immediately protested, saying that for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders would leave it "indefensible." Netanyahu held an angry phone call with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday morning before the speech, officials said, in which he demanded that the president's reference to 1967 borders be cut.
Israeli officials continued to lobby the administration until right before Obama arrived at the State Department for the address, and the president himself made changes in the text that delayed his appearance by 35 minutes. White House officials said he did not change anything under Israeli pressure.
Obama's reference to Israel's borders came toward the end of a somber, 45-minute address that sought to articulate an overarching framework for the disparate U.S. responses to the Arab Spring, which has taken a dark turn as the euphoria of popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have given way to violent crackdowns in Bahrain and Syria, civil war in Libya and political stalemate in Yemen.
Assurance to protesters
The president offered a blunt critique of Arab governments and, without promising any changes in policy to confront repressive ones more aggressively, sought to assure protesters that they were squarely aligned with democratic U.S. values in a region where the strategic interests of the United States have routinely trumped its values.
Those issues are delicate enough, but the diplomatic row with Israel highlighted the acute sensitivities that Obama faces as he seeks to link the changes in the Middle East with the conflict at the region's heart.
"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 conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent that ever," he said.
At one level, by putting the U.S. on record as supporting the 1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations over a Palestinian state, Obama was simply endorsing reality: Middle East analysts say a new state would inevitably be drawn on the basis of Israel's boundaries before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Israel's victory over Egypt and other Arab neighbors in that war expanded its control over territory in the West Bank and Gaza inhabited by millions of Palestinians, creating a greater Israel - including all of the capital, Jerusalem - but one that oversees a resentful occupied population.
Obama also noted that Israel and the Palestinians would have to swap territory on either side of that border to account for large Jewish settlements that have taken root in the West Bank since 1967.
But the shift moves the United States a step closer to the position of the Palestinians and is viewed as vital to them because it means the Americans implicitly back their view that new Israeli settlement construction will have to be reversed, or compensated for, in talks over the borders for a new Palestinian state.
Some analysts said Obama's shift was less strategic than tactical, seeking to lure the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, as a way of heading off their campaign to seek international recognition of a Palestinian state at the U.N. General Assembly in September.
Obama expressed opposition to the Palestinian statehood effort, saying, "Symbolic efforts to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state."
Gestures to Israel
He made several other gestures to Netanyahu, highlighting the security threats to Israel. Obama's reference to a "nonmilitarized" Palestinian state is likely to dismay Palestinians, who have long said such matters should be decided in negotiations. The president also said the recent unity agreement between two Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, raised "profound and legitimate questions."
"How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?" he said, referring to Hamas, which the United States has designated as a terrorist organization.