Obama backs 1967 borders for Palestinian nation

A Palestinian barber shaves a customer in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday during a televised speech by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Charles Dharapak/AP

President Barack Obama delivers his policy address on events in the Middle East at the State Department in Washington on Thursday.

WASHINGTON -- Exasperated by stalled Middle East peace talks in a season of tumultuous change, President Barack Obama jolted close ally Israel Thursday by embracing the Palestinians' terms for drawing the borders of their new nation next door. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel rejected the idea as "indefensible" on the eve of his vital White House meeting with Obama.

The U.S. president said that an independent Palestine should be based on 1967 borders -- before the Six Day War in which Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza -- as adjusted by possible land swaps agreed upon by both sides. He said Israel can never live in true peace as a Jewish state if it insists on "permanent occupation."

Obama's effort to salvage a peace effort that is in shambles was a major change in tactics for a president running out of patience and reasons to be subtle. The Israeli-Palestinian stalemate has remained immune to the popular uprisings and historic drives for freedom that have swept much of the region.

In a sweeping review of recent uprisings and authoritarian crackdowns across the Arab world, Obama was also unsparing in his words for the Palestinian leadership, repudiating its pursuit of unilateral statehood through the United Nations and questioning its alliance with a Hamas faction bent on Israel's destruction.

More broadly, before a polite diplomatic audience at the State Department, Obama sought to clarify the U.S. role toward a part of the world undergoing a transformation. He implored the American people to see that it is worth devoting U.S. might and money to help stabilize a dangerous region and help people fighting for freedom.

"There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity," the president said. "Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise. But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be."

Obama sought to give perspective to a five-month period in which thousands have died in protests for human rights, two countries' leaders have been toppled, others are teetering, the U.S. has been drawn into an armed conflict in Libya and America has launched a stunning, successful mission to find and kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The president tried to minimize bin Laden's reach even in death, saying his al-Qaida vision of destruction had already been deemed a "dead end" by those wanting a better life.

Moving country by country, Obama offered his toughest words yet for Syrian President Bashar Assad, in whom the U.S. has lost hope as a reformer given his government's bloody crackdown on dissidents. Obama did not call for Assad to step down but did accuse him of murdering his people. "The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition," Obama said. "President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition or get out of the way."

In seizing his own Mideast moment, Obama offered a speech that was in some ways notable for what he did not mention.

While critical of autocracy throughout the Mideast, he failed to mention the region's largest, richest and arguably most repressive nation, U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. Nor did he mention Jordan, a staunch U.S. ally that has a peace deal with Israel. Also left out was the United Arab Emirates, the wealthy, pro-American collection of mini-states on the Persian Gulf.