From NBC’s Ali Weinberg and Libby Leist
President Obama made his most explicit call for the Middle East peace process to be based on a Palestinian state and Israel's return to its pre-1967 boundaries.
While the speech at the State Department was billed as one on policy toward the Middle East and North Africa, places undergoing democratic upheaval and brutal crackdowns, the president made his most notable remarks on the long-standing gridlock between Israel and the Palestinians.
Obama said Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should also involve "mutually agreed swaps" of land, in which Israel retains areas in the West Bank where Jewish settlements have been established. This would ensure that "secure and recognized borders are established for both states," Obama said.
"What America and the international community can do is state frankly what everyone knows: a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples," Obama said, while acknowledging that it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians themselves to make a lasting peace a reality.
Not much movement, however, is expected toward a solution in the near future. The president purposefully did not lay out any timeline or specific demands, but instead stuck to principles he has previously laid out. Israel has signaled it is cautious about any kind of peace agreement that could jeopardize its stability, particularly during a time when the Middle East is in upheaval. Additionally, the hard-line administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as a Palestinian Authority government that includes Hamas, complicates matters.
“[T]he recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel,” Obama said. “How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.”
Obama's words came just a day before he is set to meet with Netanyahu, who issued a statement shortly after the speech, saying that Israel would reject any return to "indefensible" borders, a suggestion that a return to pre-1967 borders would compromise Israel's security.
"That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004," the statement read, alluding to a letter then-President George W. Bush wrote to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saying that it would be "unrealistic" for Israel to abandon all its settlements given the "already existing major Israeli populations centers" in the West Bank.
President Obama's speech indicated not a shift in policy but in bluntness. He has previously stated the administration's goals of a return to the 1967 borders but has couched his statements in perhaps more diplomatic terms, like he did when announcing the resumption of Middle East peace talks in September 2010. He said then that his vision of peace was "a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish state of Israel and its other neighbors."
The speech was an instant lightning rod for both Republican members of congress and presidential candidates.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a key Republican on the Armed Services and Appropriations committees, said President Obama made a mistake in calling for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.
“Anytime our President singles out an issue, it makes it more difficult in my view to have a comprehensive negotiation, so i quite frankly think it was a mistake," he told reporters.
And Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) condemned the President for calling so specifically for negotiations to hinge on a return to pre-1967 borders, saying the statement was “a substantial shift towards the Palestinian side” because “words matter in Middle Eastern policy.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), who is also contemplating a presidential run, tweeted, “Obama's call for 1967 borders will cause chaos, division & more aggression in Middle East & put Israel at further risk.”
Likely presidential candidate Mitt Romney released a statement shortly after the speech saying the president “has thrown Israel under the bus, and that he “violated a first principle of American foreign policy, which is to stand firm by our friends.”