On a day when Israelis grappled with the reality that the most powerful man in the world had endorsed a geopolitical plan their leaders considered unsafe and untenable, legions of Americans spontaneously stepped forward Thursday to pledge support and concern for Israel.
A day ahead of his much-anticipated meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Pres. Barack Obama endorsed the eventual creation of a Palestinian state during remarks delivered Thursday at the State Department. But it was Obama's urging that a modern Palestine be based on 1967 borders — before the Six Day War in which Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza — that sparked a landslide of disapproval for the president's plan and an outpouring of support for Israel from public figures, including some with Utah ties.
Netanyahu promptly responded to Obama's address on Facebook, effectively dismissing the prospect of an Israeli withdrawal past the 1967 borders because doing so would be "both indefensible and … leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines."
American politicos lined up around the block to blast Obama's vision for Israeli-Palestinian relations. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, for example, drubbed Obama for breaching "the first principal of American foreign policy."
"President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus," Romney said. "He has disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace. He has also violated a first principle of American foreign policy, which is to stand firm by our friends."
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, left nothing to the imagination in conveying his unconditional displeasure with Obama's statements.
"I condemn in the strongest possible terms the president's irresponsible suggestion that Israel return to its pre-1967 borders," Lee said in a press release. "I agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that this move would leave Israel in a militarily indefensible position."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, struck a more stoic tone than Lee but still called into question the timing and eventual consequences of the Obama speech.
"The people of Israel need to know that its greatest and strongest ally remains the United States of America," Hatch said in an email. "I am very concerned about the president's remarks. At a time when our nation should be standing by its important ally, the president's ill-advised words could undermine Israel's negotiating position with the Palestinians and encourage greater instability in the region.
"This is especially disconcerting since the President's speech comes just before the Israeli Prime Minister's visit to the United States and after a violent weekend where hundreds stormed Israel's borders."
Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, both disagree with Obama's proposal. In a press release Matheson said, "America should continue to push for a two-state solution in the Middle East from the principle of both sides renouncing violence and an agreement that puts Israel in a position where it can defend itself."
"That's no way to treat a friend," Chaffetz said via phone. "I think for the President to suggest that a country should move its borders is presumptuous and, in this case, inappropriate. It's not defensible for Israel."
Although Obama's comments regarding Israel and Palestine are what made headlines, the bulk of his remarks actually focused on a sea change in America's foreign policy for the rapidly evolving Middle East. Obama sought to leave no doubt that the U.S. stands behind the protesters who have swelled from nation to nation across the Middle East and North Africa, while also trying to convince American viewers that U.S. involvement in unstable countries halfway around the world is in their interest, too.
Obama said the United States has a historic opportunity and the responsibility to support the rights of people clamoring for freedoms, and he called for "a new chapter in American diplomacy."
"We know that our own future is bound to this region by the forces of economics and security; history and faith," the president said.
While there will be setbacks accompanying progress in political transitions, Obama believes the movements in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen present a valuable opportunity for the U.S. to show which side it is on. "We have a chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of a dictator," he said, referring to the fruit vendor who killed himself in despair and sparked a chain of events that unleashed uprisings around the Arab world.
Obama's speech shouldn't have surprised anyone, said University of Utah law professor Amos N. Guiora, a terrorism analyst and a former senior Israeli counter-terrorism official and judge who spent five years negotiationg the implementation of the Oslo peace process.
"It reflects what he has suggested over the course of the past few years. But it is also important to add that the Devil is in the details," Guiora said.
"The policy articulation — pre-1967 borders — that's fine, one can agree or disagree with it, but at the end of the day it is all about negotiating, and negotiating is all about the details. And I can add from my own personal experience that it comes down to really important things: Right of return for Palestinians, yes or no; Jerusalem divided, yes or no."
The president's speech was noteworthy because of three items he mentioned that are unsual for a president, said Chibli Mallat, a professor of Middle Eastern Law and Politics at the U.
One was Bahrain, an American ally: "It was important that he mentioned Bahrain because it shows his determination of the administration to carry out reforms everywhere — including with the monarchies," Mallat said.48 comments on this story
Second, it is unusual for an American president to mention the Palestinian refugees.
Mallat said the most important difference, however, was the mention of non-violence. "If there is anything important in this revolution that is taking place, it is its non-violent character."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.