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Obama Middle East Speech: US is with street protesters, not palace dictators

President Obama on Thursday sought to align the US with forces of democratic change sweeping the Arab world. His Middle East speech also prodded Israel and the Palestinians on peace talks, but was met with immediate pushback.

By Staff writer / May 19, 2011

President Obama delivers his Mideast speech at the State Department in Washington, on Thursday, May 19.

Jim Young/Reuters

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Washington

President Obama’s big Thursday speech on the Middle East aimed to do two difficult things: align the US with the forces of democratic change sweeping the Arab world, and push Israel and the Palestinians toward real progress on a peace pact.

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Both tasks are so big they can’t be accomplished by 45 minutes of presidential rhetoric alone. But one leading US expert judges that Mr. Obama at least outlined a promising way forward for US diplomacy in the region.

“It was a very important description of the balance US policy has to make between values, principles, and security concerns,” says Edward Djerejian, a former assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs.

Not all reactions were so positive. The Israeli government and its closest supporters in the US quickly rejected Obama’s insistence that a Palestinian state should be drawn largely using borders from 1967, prior to the Six-Day War in which Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.

The 1967 lines are “indefensible,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following Obama’s address. Mr. Netanyahu is to meet Obama at the White House on Friday in a meeting that now seems sure to be somewhat tense.

Obama’s Thursday address was made necessary by the changes that have swept the Middle East and north Africa during the Arab Spring people's uprisings. The administration's policy has been criticized for an uncertain response to developments that would seem to reflect the US historic insistence on human rights but also threaten the position of regional autocrats who are longtime American allies.

Obama acknowledged that US actions in the Middle East have long been driven by its interests in countering terrorism and nuclear proliferation, securing commerce and regional security, and promoting Israeli security and Israeli-Palestinian peace. (He did not specifically mention the free flow of oil, but that might be inferred from the reference to commerce.)

The US strategy now must broaden beyond the narrow pursuit of these interests, said Obama. It must also take into account the drive for self-determination in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other Arab world nations.

“After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be,” said Obama.

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