Iran, Syria say Obama speech on Middle East shows US ‘despair,’ ‘arrogance’


Iran on Friday slammed US President Barack Obama’s speech on the Middle East as a sign of “despair” and “contradictions” in Washington’s policies in the region. Syria said the speech “had nothing new” and that it only reaffirmed the Obama Administration’s staunch support for Israel.

“The despair, contradictions and lies are visible in the speech by Mr. Obama and his support for the Jewish state clearly shows the racist nature of US policy,” said Saeed Jalili from the Supreme National Security Council, the body that sets Iran’s national security policy.

The outgoing Arab League chief Amr Mussa, meanwhile, urged US action to implement President Obama’s vision of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Obama became the first American president to say that the borders of Israel and a future Palestinian state should be based on 1967 lines and be completed with land swaps.

“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,” Mr. Obama said.

He said that peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians would involve “two states for two peoples.”

“The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state,” he said.

“The duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated,” the president said.

But he warned: “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,” he said.

But Mr. Jalili, who is also Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, said that “the United States must know that all the land belongs to the Palestinians...this is what the region demands and we will accept nothing less.”

Iran does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and its animosity with the Jewish state has hardened under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has launched repeated tirades against Tehran's arch-foe.

Outgoing Arab League chief Amr Mussa, meanwhile, urged the United States to act on President Obama’s call for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, blaming the decades-old conflict for regional instability.

Mr. Mussa “called on the United States to build on Obama’s address and to strive in the coming weeks and months towards creating an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital,” a statement said.

“The Palestinian cause is the main cause of instability in the Middle East,” the statement added.

In Syria, whose president, Bashar al-Assad, was recently slapped by US sanctions for his violent crackdown on protesters, the state news agency said on Friday that President Obama’s speech offered nothing new but simply reiterated America’s firm support for Israel.

The Syrian news agency said: “The US president’s speech on the Middle East had nothing new as far as his country’s policies on the peace process, the situation in Iraq or security or regional stability are concerned… all it did was reaffirm the deep-rooted and unwavering support for Israel's security.”

The government-sponsored daily al-Thawra criticized President Obama saying, “He speaks under the banner of democracy without knowing the meaning of the word.”

The newspaper accused Mr. Obama of “arrogance” in calling for Mr. Assad to embrace democracy or step down.

“Obama is arrogant in telling a sovereign country what to do, and threatening to isolate it if it fails to do as it is told,” the newspaper said.

In his speech President Obama said, “The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way. The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests; release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests; allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Deraa; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition. Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and isolated abroad.”

But criticism of President Obama’s speech has not come only from arch foes in the Middle East. Mr. Obama has been criticized domestically as well for his positions on Israel. Although Mr. Obama’s idea builds on stated US policy, negative reaction was immediate.

“President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, an all-but-declared presidential candidate, said in a statement. “It’s likely to be just the beginning of months of difficult negotiations and angry politics leading up to an expected United Nations vote in September regarding the prospect of Palestinian statehood.”

“I think Obama will be cordial and polite, but there will be an absence of warmth here,” said Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Moderate voices, however, saw President Obama’s plan as having potential to break the political deadlock in the Middle East peace process.

Yoram Peri, a former political adviser to the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, told National Public Radio (NPR) that Mr. Obama’s approach was “interesting and new,” because it would divide negotiations into two stages. First, questions surrounding borders and recognition and secondly, the even more intractable problems of the status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return.

Mr. Peri is now the director of the Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.

“The new approach is balanced,” Mr. Peri said. “Palestinians have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Israel has to accept the 1967 lines as the baseline for the future borders.”

Mr. Peri said he believes President Obama would bring the same balanced approach to the second, more difficult stage of negotiations. But that doesn’t mean he’d be likely to meet with success.

“My assessment: Neither party will accept the new proposal,” he said. “The march to the UN in September continues.”

President Obama criticized the Palestinian push for statehood declaration, dismissing it as “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations.”

Technically the United Nations does not recognize states. Individual UN members do that on a bilateral basis. In reality, however, membership in the United Nations is generally considered to be confirmation that a country is an internationally recognized sovereign state.

Countries interested in joining the United Nations must first apply to the UN Security Council. If the 15-nation council approves the membership request, it is passed to the UN General Assembly for approval. A membership request needs a two-thirds majority to be approved, which today would mean 128 votes out of 192 member states.

(Mustapha Ajbaili, an editor at Al Arabiya, can be reached at: [email protected])