Mixed reaction to Obama's bid for Middle East peace

European powers on Friday welcomed a speech by United States President Barack Obama calling for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal based on 1967 borders.

“This was a very important message for the Middle East peace process,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin. “The proposal ... would be a good path that both sides should consider.”

In a keynote policy speech on Thursday, Obama included a clear call for Israel and the Palestinians to use the lines that existed before 1967 as the basis for talks to achieve a negotiated solution to the conflict.

Germany is traditionally one of Israel’s closest allies and currently holds a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

Visiting Poland, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said there was “no alternative to the two-state solution arrived at via negotiations”.

Accompanying Westerwelle, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he hoped Obama’s speech would bring the parties back to the table.

“I have noticed the necessity emphasised by President Obama of going beyond the status quo in the Middle East,” he said.

“Barack Obama did what Europe advised him to do,” said Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski following talks with Juppe and Westerwelle.
“Now that he has done it, we are expressing our support,” he said.

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he supported Obama’s “clear message that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps”.

“The scale of the challenge is unprecedented and our response must match the aspirations of people across the region,” he said.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt lauded the speech which gave “Europe and the United States one voice”, according to TT, the Swedish news agency. “[Obama] was very explicit and that’s very good.”

Welcoming the speech, a spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU and the US remained united in finding “a just and lasting solution” with Israel and a viable Palestinian state “living side by side in peace and security”, said Maja Kocijancic.

Meanwhile, on a visit to Norway, Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said Obama’s proposal was an “important opportunity to engage between now and the end of the year”.

Deal rejected
Israel, however, on Thursday rejected Obama’s call for the peace deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately called on the White House to guarantee Israel would not have to withdraw to the 1967 lines.

He urged Obama to commit to the assurances laid out in 2004 by then-president George Bush, who said “new realities on the ground” meant a “full and complete return” to the 1967 borders was “unrealistic”.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of US commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both houses of Congress,” Netanyahu’s statement said.

“Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines, which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centres in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] beyond those lines,” it added.

In the West Bank, the Palestinian leadership responded cautiously, saying it would examine Obama’s address before making substantive comment.

“President [Mahmoud] Abbas decided to call the Palestinian leadership to an urgent meeting as soon as possible and consult with the Arab brothers to discuss US President Barack Obama’s speech,” senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters.

He said the Palestinians remained committed to all previous agreements with Israel, “hoping that the Israeli government will do the same, to give the peace process the chance it deserves”.

The Hamas movement, which rules the Gaza Strip, and this month signed a surprise unity agreement with Abbas’s Fatah party, immediately called for Washington to match words with action.

“What Obama needs to do is not to add slogans but to take concrete steps to protect the rights of the Palestinian people and the Arab nation,” Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said.—AFP

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