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Fri 20 May 2011 11:14 AM

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US president hails popular unrest in Middle East

Barack Obama throws his weight behind tumultuous drive for democratic change in Arab world

US president hails popular unrest in Middle East
US president Barack Obama. (Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama has thrown his weight behind the tumultuous drive for democratic change in the Arab world and presented his most detailed vision yet on the path to elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Obama, in his much-anticipated "Arab spring" speech, hailed popular unrest sweeping the Middle East as a "historic opportunity" and said promoting reform was his administration's top priority for a region caught up in unprecedented upheaval.

He also ratcheted up pressure on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, saying for the first time that he must stop a brutal crackdown or "get out of the way," and prodded US allies Yemen and Bahrain as well for democratic transformation.

Obama's bid to reset ties with a sceptical Arab world was aimed at countering criticism over an uneven response to the region's uprisings that threaten both US friends and foes and his failure to advance Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

His blunt language towards US ally Israel about the need to find an end to its occupation of Arab land could complicate his talks on Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while easing Arab doubts of his commitment to even-handed US mediation.

"The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation," Obama told an audience of US and foreign diplomats at the State Department in Washington.

Most of Obama's speech focussed on the unrest convulsing the Arab world, though he did not abandon his approach of balancing support for democratic aspirations with a desire to preserve longtime partnerships seen as crucial to fighting al Qaeda, containing Iran and securing vital oil supplies.

"The people have risen up to demand their basic human rights. Two leaders have stepped aside. More may follow," he said.

Seizing on a decades-old conflict long seen as a key catalyst of Middle East tensions, Obama went further than he has before in offering principles for resolving a stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians.

But he stopped short of presenting a formal US peace plan - an omission that could disappoint many in the Arab world - after having failed to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front since taking office in 2009.

Among the parameters he laid down was that any agreement creating a state of Palestine must be based on borders that existed before Israel captured the West Bank in a 1967 Arab-Israel war but "with mutually agreed swaps" of land.

Though not a US policy shift in itself, Obama's insistence on that point - plus his criticism of continued Israeli "settlement activity" - sends a message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that that Washington expects the Jewish state to make concessions.

Obama will host Netanyahu, who has had strained relations with the US president, at the White House on Friday, with the prospects for progress on peace moves considered dim.

Obama also reaffirmed an unshakable commitment to Israel's security and condemned what he called "symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations," referring to the Palestinians plan to seek General Assembly recognition for statehood in September.

But he acknowledged that a new reconciliation deal between the Palestinian Authority and the Islamist group Hamas raised "legitimate questions" for Israel, which has condemned the accord as blocking any new peace talks.

"I recognise how hard this will be. Suspicion and hostility has been passed on for generations, and at times it has hardened," Obama said. "But I'm convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past."

Struggling to regain the initiative in a week of intense Middle East diplomacy, Obama seized an opportunity to reach out to the Arab world following the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of US Navy SEAL commandos.

"We have dealt al Qaeda a huge blow by killing its leader," Obama said. "Bin Laden was not a martyr, he was a mass murderer ... Bin Laden and his murderous vision won some adherents but even before his death al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance."

Seeking to back democratic reform with economic incentives, Obama announced billions of dollars in aid for Egypt and Tunisia to bolster their political transitions after revolts toppled autocratic leaders.

Obama's speech was his first major attempt to put the anti-government protests that have swept the Middle East in the context of US national interests.

"Their voices tell us that change cannot be denied," Obama said.

He has scrambled to keep pace with still-unfolding events that have ousted long-time leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, threatened those in Yemen and Bahrain and engulfed Libya in civil war where the United States and other powers unleashed a bombing campaign.

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