May 17th, 2011
03:16 PM ET
By CNN's Alan Silverleib
WASHINGTON (CNN) - President Barack Obama said Tuesday it is critical for Israelis and Palestinians to restart negotiations on an "equitable and just" two-state solution to their decades-long conflict.
Obama made his remarks during a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II at the White House, kicking off a critical week for the administration's Middle East policy.
The president is scheduled to deliver an address Thursday on U.S. policy toward the "Arab Spring" uprisings that have shaken autocratic regimes across North Africa and the broader Arab world.
Obama is slated to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday. Netanyahu, in turn, will deliver an address to Congress while in Washington.
"The United States has an enormous stake in this," he said It's part of a larger push for political and economic reform designed to meet "the aspirations of young people throughout the Arab world."
Across the region, "some of the old structures that were inhibiting their ability to progress have to be reworked," he said.
The White House is putting the Arab-Israeli peace process - and the Middle East as a whole - back in the spotlight at a time when serious questions have been raised regarding its track record in the region.
Former Sen. George Mitchell unexpectedly submitted his resignation as the president's Mideast envoy Friday, and deadly clashes broke out Sunday between pro-Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces.
Ongoing Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and Palestinian steps toward a unilateral declaration of statehood have driven the two sides further apart since Obama took office. They have also placed new obstacles in the path of the administration's push for a mutually acceptable two-state solution.
Additional doubts about the viability of the stalled peace process were raised this month in the wake of a formal reconciliation agreement between the two largest Palestinian factions: President Mahmoud Abbas' party, the West Bank-based Fatah, and the Islamist group Hamas, which rules Gaza.
Both Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist organization and have voiced strong opposition to the inclusion of the group in any unity government, demanding that it first renounce violence, recognize the state of Israel and abide by all previous agreements.
Netanyahu has called on the Palestinian Authority to pull out of the deal, saying it jeopardizes prospects for a peace agreement.
A senior Israeli government official recently said the government views Hamas' involvement as a "fundamental impasse."
The agreement among Hamas, Fatah and smaller Palestinian factions calls for the establishment of a new Palestinian caretaker government and for parliamentary and presidential elections next year.
"The circumstances are difficult and not likely to magically resolve themselves," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday. But "this is a moment of opportunity" for the Israelis and Palestinians, he insisted, citing the "historic change" taking place in the region.
Obama's Thursday speech - to be delivered at the State Department - will address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to officials who spoke on the condition of not being identified.
It also will address the ongoing fight against al Qaeda in the wake of Osama bin Laden's killing in Pakistan and the reform movement embodied in the Arab Spring.
"The president will make news" when he gives the speech, Carney promised Tuesday, saying he will outline "specific new ideas" about U.S. policy for the Middle East.
The president will discuss situations in specific countries, and is expected to come out strongly against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's violent response to protesters in his country, the officials said. They expect additional U.S. sanctions on Syria to be announced before the speech and said the new measures could target al-Assad by name.
Bahrain and Yemen are among the other countries likely to be mentioned by name in the speech, but not with the same level of criticism expected to be directed at Syria, the officials added.
The president's speech comes nearly two years after his closely watched address in Cairo that called for "a new beginning" between the United States and the Muslim world.
Obama's 2009 Cairo speech was well-received, but Washington is still struggling to overcome decades of mounting Arab anger and suspicion driven in part by past U.S. support for various Arab dictators and monarchs.
Obama helped push Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from office in February and subsequently committed U.S. forces to a NATO air campaign in support of the rebel movement in Libya. The administration has repeatedly called for an end to strongman Moammar Gadhafi's nearly 42-year rule.
The administration also slapped sanctions on top Syrian officials after the crackdown on pro-reform protests there.
The White House has been much less vocal, however, in dealing with allies such as Bahrain, a small Persian Gulf state that is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.
Analysts have said expectations are high in the Arab world for Obama to lay out a clearer statement of American intentions on Thursday.
The Arab Spring has put "tremendous force" on repressive governments around the region, former National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said Sunday.
"They are bottling up forces which will eventually push them out," Blair said. "So I think that what the United States does is to encourage that in general, and then we support specifically where we can."
CNN's Elise Labott, Tom Cohen and Matt Smith contributed to this report.