Will Obama’s speech help the peace process?

The discussions and comments after President Obama’s big speech today on the Middle East and North Africa have focused on the seemingly obvious – that peace between Israel and the Palestinians must be based on 1967 borders, before the Six Day War that year.

But, actually, Obama said something he had not said before:

“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. We believe 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. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”

The speech was criticized immediately and harshly by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will meet Obama in the White House on Friday. It looks like it could be a tense meeting.

The Republicans, especially Republican presidential candidates, also harshly criticized Obama, which of course underlines that this issue is more politically charged than usual, here in the beginning of the presidential campaign. The challenge for the Republicans is to capture as many Jewish, and traditionally Democratic voters, as possible.

“Obama has thrown Israel under a bus,” said Mitt Romney; “Obama’s insistence that it’s 1967 borders is a mistaken and very dangerous demand,” said Tim Pawlenty; “Obama has betrayed Israel,” said Mike Huckabee, who is no longer a candidate.

Etc., etc..

Obama’s statement about a peace process based on the 1967 borders was reportedly made after intensive discussions within the Administration. The Israeli protests were expected, as the statement brings the United States a little closer to the Palestinian stance.

However, Obama stressed, the Palestinians should harbor no illusions about Israel and U.S. support for the Jewish state.

“For the Palestinians, effort to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist. “

But, he added:

“The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.”

President Obama said nothing in his speech on the future American role in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Such an active American role is needed, according to many observers, as the parties on their own cannot accomplish this.

Tom Friedman in yesterday’s New York Times:

“With a more democratic and pluralistic Arab world in Israel’s future … Israel needs to use every ounce of its creativity to explore ways to securely cede the West Bank to a Palestinian state.”

But he held no hopes that this would happen, for Netanyahu has so far not shown any interest in such negotiations.

David Ignatius in The Washington Post lamented the fact that Obama did not present a detailed plan on how peace negotiations should proceed but praised Obama’s speech in all, as striking the right principled and pragmatic balance.

Obama made it perfectly clear on which side the U.S. is during the ongoing Arab “spring.” He promised economic aid to Tunisia and Egypt, and stated that Syria’s Assad either has to initiate reforms, or step aside. But he did not call directly for Assad’s departure.

It remains now to see how the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu will go and if it will produce any results. It also remains to be seen how Obama on Sunday in his speech tackles the powerful Israeli lobby group AIPAC, and what Netanyahu himself will say in his speech to the U.S. Congress next week.

Perhaps already by next week we have the answer to the question if Obama’s speech today succeeded in bringing the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back to life?

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