President Barack Obama today called on Israel to open its borders with Gaza, in a powerful sign of his new administration’s break with Bush-era policy on the Middle East and the world as a whole. Speaking on a day when both he and Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, were welcomed by hundreds of enthusiastic US diplomats at the State Department, Obama proclaimed that his administration would “actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians” in the wake of the recent conflict in Gaza.
“The outline for a durable cease-fire is clear: Hamas must end its rocket fire; Israel will complete the withdrawal of its forces from Gaza; the US and our partners will support a credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime, so that Hamas cannot rearm,” Obama said. “As part of a lasting cease-fire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate monitoring regime, with the international [community] and Palestinian Authority participating.”
Although the Bush administration brokered a 2005 deal to allow open border crossings to Gaza, access was often shut down, with Israel citing security concerns and Hamas launching rocket attacks.
The new president’s comments came in a speech at the State Department, less than a day after Clinton was confirmed and sworn in as secretary of state and just hours after he signed executive orders to close the center at Guantánamo Bay and apply the Geneva Conventions to all detainees in US custody. “I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture,” he told his audience.
Obama and Clinton also announced the appointment of George Mitchell as the US’s special envoy for the Arab-Israeli conflict and Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the United Nations, as envoy for Afghanistan-Pakistan.
The moves signalled another break with the Bush administration, which had resisted appointing a high-profile envoy for the Middle East.
“Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel’s security and we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself against legitimate threats,” Obama said.
But in comments referring to the Gaza conflict he added: “I was deeply concerned by the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days and by the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza. Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water, and basic medical care, and who’ve faced suffocating poverty for far too long.”
Obama called on Arab governments to “act on” the promise of a Saudi-led 2002 Arab peace intiative by supporting the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas “taking steps towards normalising relations with Israel, and by standing up to extremism that threatens us all.”