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Obama Uses Speech To Support Democratic Change

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

As it happens, Israel's prime minister is paying a visit to the White House today, just one day after President Obama called on Israel to take bold steps for peace with the Palestinians. In his big speech on the Middle East, the president offered a few details on what he thinks a peace deal should look like. He also emphasized that the U.S. is supporting democratic change in a tumultuous time for North Africa and the Middle East.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN: President Obama has faced criticism for being inconsistent in responding to the protests in North Africa and the Middle East. But in his speech yesterday, he called this an historic opportunity, and put himself firmly on the side of protest movements that were sparked when one frustrated street vendor set himself on fire in Tunisia.

President BARACK OBAMA: We had the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator.

KELEMEN: President Obama defended the international action in Libya. And he had tough words for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have rounded up protesters and killed as many as 1,000.

President OBAMA: 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.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has had a more difficult time saying such things about U.S. allies in the region, including Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navys Fifth Fleet. President Obama criticized Bahrain for using quote, brute force against protesters there, and said to be credible, the U.S. has to point out when allies behave badly.

President OBAMA: The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue. And you cant have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.

(Soundbite of applause)

KELEMEN: It was one of the few lines that elicited applause from the audience, which included Arab diplomats, academics and activists like Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian blogger.

Mr. AMMAR ABDULHAMID (Blogger): I think a lot of Bahrainis will still be disappointed - I know; I have a lot of colleagues in Bahrain - because they wanted sort of a clearer push for their rights; a clearer condemnation of the violence, of the suppression that took place, of the Saudi intervention. He definitely skirted over the issue of Saudi intervention.

KELEMEN: Saudi Arabia's ambassador was among the diplomats sitting in the front row of the speech. President Obama didnt mention Saudi Arabia at all.

Still, activists in the room felt good about the speech overall. Abdulhamid says for Syrians, it should be a shot in the arm. That sentiment was echoed by Radwan Ziadeh, who teaches at George Washington University.

Professor RADWAN ZIADEH (Institute for Middle East Studies, George Washington University): Seeing the whole region as a time of opportunity for transition to democracy, this is actually what we are looking for - to see such kind of set of principles - how the United States will deal with the region in the future.

KELEMEN: As the U.S. tries to deal with all the changes in the region, there is one key area in a stalemate: the Israeli Palestinian conflict. President Obama criticized Palestinian efforts to quote, delegitimize Israel. And he told Israel it needs to act boldly to advance peace.

President OBAMA: The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.

KELEMEN: In a bid to jumpstart talks, President Obama suggested clear parameters for negotiations, saying the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines - before the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.