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Obama Endorses Key Palestinian Border Demand, Pledges Aid to Egypt, Tunisia

May 19, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Next, President Obama addresses the Arab revolt and Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Judy Woodruff begins our coverage.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you. Please have a seat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The speech at the State Department was advertised as a response to the Arab uprisings. But Mr. Obama made headlines on the long-stalled Israeli/Palestinian peace process.

He had strong words for the Palestinians and their diplomatic campaign at the U.N.

BARACK OBAMA: For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But for the first time, he endorsed a key Palestinian demand.

BARACK OBAMA: 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president also offered strong support for Israel.

BARACK OBAMA: Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable and we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums.

But precisely because of our friendship, it’s important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel, too, must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the speech. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected any return to the 1967 borders, calling them indefensible. Netanyahu meets with President Obama tomorrow at the White House.

In the meantime, the president aimed much of his speech today at the Muslim world.

BARACK OBAMA: And we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.

Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest. Today, I want to make it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The protests began in Tunisia last December, bringing down that country’s president, and soon after toppled Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, from Algeria in January, to the iconic demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, to Yemen, Gaza, Lebanon, and Jordan.

In February, pro-democracy groups began an uprising against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, and protests also sprang up in Morocco and Bahrain. By March, demonstrators had hit the streets of Saudi Arabia and Syria, too.

President Obama has faced criticism that his response to the revolts is uneven, taking military action, for example in Libya, but not in Yemen, Syria, or Bahrain. And while he issued sanctions yesterday against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Obama today offered Assad one more chance.

BARACK OBAMA: The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy, and President Assad now has a choice. He can lead that transition or get out of the way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president also had words for Bahrain, a strategic partner and home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. He urged the Gulf nation’s leaders to end their mass arrests and violent crackdown on demonstrators.

BARACK OBAMA: The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue. And you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There was no reference to Saudi Arabia, where protests have been minimal.

How much effect these U.S. statements or actions will have on Arab and Muslim public opinion was unclear. A recent Pew Research poll found the rise in pro-democracy movements hasn’t improved the U.S. image. And the president himself remains unpopular, with most Muslim nations polled disapproving of the way he’s responded to the Arab spring.

But in a bid to show support for the democratic awakening, Mr. Obama did lay out economic aid plans worth billions of dollars for both Egypt and Tunisia.