In Germany, Obama strikes an urgent note on Mideast peace
Saying that 'the moment is now' to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Obama announces he is dispatching special envoy George Mitchell to the region.
By Christi Parsons, Richard Boudreaux and Paul Richter
LA Times, June 6, 2009
Reporting from Washington, Dresden, Germany, and Jerusalem -- President Obama declared Friday that "the moment is now" to settle 60 years of conflict in the Middle East as he sought to stoke momentum for negotiations a day after his address in Cairo that both inspired hopes and rattled nerves across the region.
Obama announced that he was sending George J. Mitchell, his special Mideast envoy, on a mission to the area beginning Sunday. One of Mitchell's stops could be in Syria, which would mark a significant step in the U.S. effort to seek a comprehensive peace to the Arab-Israeli dispute.
But Obama acknowledged during a visit to Germany that the United States can't and won't try to force peace on the region. Instead, it will try to make difficult steps more likely.
"You've probably seen more sustained activity on this issue in the first five months than you would have seen in most previous administrations," Obama said. "And I think given what we've done so far, we've at least created the space, the atmosphere, in which talks can restart."
Obama also sought to adjust perceptions that his speech a day earlier, a long-promised address aimed at improving relations with the Islamic world, was unusually tough on Israel and more sympathetic to the Palestinians.
"Less attention has been focused on the insistence on my part that the Palestinians and the Arab states have to take very concrete actions," he said.
Although Obama offered no new proposals on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the guidelines spelled out in his Cairo address crystallized an increasingly public breach between his administration and the Israeli leadership.
Obama and other U.S. officials have put Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the defensive over the last two weeks for refusing to embrace the goal of an independent Palestinian state and halt the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
In Israel, there is a looming sense that Netanyahu will soon be forced to choose between two perilous alternatives: going along with Obama's vision for the Mideast and risking a revolt that could bring down his right-leaning governing coalition, or defying Israel's most powerful ally and pushing the Jewish state deeper into international isolation.
Though many Israelis support the government's positions on settlements and Palestinian sovereignty, they feel uneasy about alienating the United States, especially at a time when Netanyahu's top foreign policy priority is to confront Iran. Israeli officials quietly voiced irritation that Obama seemed to soften on Iran in his speech, which contained no warning that development of a nuclear weapon would lead to a military clash with the United States.
A new sign of tension over Jewish settlements appeared Friday. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Washington that there is no record that the George W. Bush administration secretly agreed to permit some growth in the enclaves. Israelis have cited such an agreement in response to Obama's demand that settlement activity be frozen.
"There is no memorialization of any informal and oral agreements," Clinton said in an appearance at the State Department. "If they did occur, which of course people say they did, they did not become part of the official position of the United States government."
A prominent conservative Israeli lawmaker rejected U.S. involvement in the issue.
"With all due respect to President Obama -- and there is respect -- and to the deep friendship between Israel and the United States, no foreign leader of another country will set policy in Judea and Samaria," Ofir Akonis, a member of parliament with Netanyahu's conservative Likud Party, told Army Radio. Judea and Samaria is an Israeli term for the West Bank.
Obama's remarks came on a day when he visited Buchenwald, the onetime Nazi concentration camp in Germany, where he praised the human spirit and honored Israel, which was founded in the postwar years.
Before that, Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke at a castle in Dresden, which was heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II and became a symbol of the destructive power of modern warfare.
The president also visited wounded U.S. troops at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a U.S. military hospital in Germany, awarding six Purple Heart medals to soldiers and Marines.
Today, the president visits France to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the D-day landing in Normandy.
Reaction to speech
His speech in Cairo built new pressure for talks that would settle the decades-old dispute between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Leaders on both sides acknowledged the significance of Obama's remarks, but offered measured responses on what they would mean.
Israel's government issued a statement saying that it hoped the speech would "indeed lead to a new period of reconciliation between the Arab and Muslim world and Israel."
The Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank, welcomed the president's "readiness for partnership, listening, confidence building and ending tensions." Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the Hamas militant group, which controls the Gaza Strip and refuses to recognize Israel, said he heard in "Obama's calm tone" the signal of a fresh American approach.
Most reaction, however, underscored the intractable nature of the conflict. Officials and commentators on each side applauded parts of Obama's speech that reinforced their respective positions while pointedly rejecting parts that clashed with their views.
Israelis welcomed his condemnation of Holocaust denial. They said he was right to tell Arab states that their own peace initiative was only "an important beginning," an implication that it needs modification to prevent millions of returning Palestinians from overwhelming the Jewish state. A key issue for Palestinians has been their assertion of a "right of return" to ancestors' homes in Israel.
But Israelis cringed when Obama associated the Palestinian struggle with the U.S. civil rights movement, questioned the "legitimacy" of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and referred to Israel as a "Jewish homeland" rather than a Jewish state. Both sides took offense at what they called his portrayal of their suffering as morally equivalent.
"He drew a shocking parallel between the elimination of Europe's Jews and the suffering that the Arabs of Israel brought upon themselves when they declared war against Israel," said Arieh Eldad, a right-wing member of Israel's parliament.
Palestinians faulted the speech as "lacking in practical policies and steps to support Palestinian sovereignty on our land," as Barhoum put it. Israeli officials, on the other hand, were relieved by their absence.
U.S. officials are expected to outline those policies in the weeks ahead.
"We're still very much in an embryonic stage with it, but trying to develop the issues and bring as many people into the tent, to bring about a comprehensive and long-lasting solution," said Gen. James L. Jones Jr., Obama's national security advisor.
He said Obama wanted to move as rapidly as possible.
Obama said Mitchell would follow up with "all the players in the region" in the coming week. State Department officials said Mitchell was considering a stop in Syria, one of the U.S. adversaries with which Obama has pledged talks.
Obama traveled to Buchenwald, outside the city of Weimar, with Merkel and Elie Wiesel, a Nobel laureate and survivor of the camps -- including Buchenwald, where his father died.
Speaking to a hushed crowd standing before the gates of the former camp, Wiesel said the Nazis' attempt to annihilate the Jews was just one genocide of the recent past. He listed Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Darfur.
Beneath a clock tower that perpetually reads 3:15, the hour of the camp's liberation by U.S. soldiers on April 11, 1945, Obama called the site "the ultimate rebuke" to those who would "tell lies about our history."
Obama emphasized personal reasons for his visit to Buchenwald. His great uncle, Charles Payne, as a young Army private helped to liberate a satellite camp at the end of World War II.