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MIDDLE EAST: Obama speaks to Arabs of urgency in peace talks

January 27, 2009 |  5:12 am

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The new president of the United States, Barack Obama, extended a "hand of friendship" to the Muslim world, giving his first television interview since his Jan. 20 inauguration to the popular Al Arabiya satellite news channel.

In the interview with the Dubai-based channel, widely seen as a gesture of reconciliation with the Arab world after the tensions of the Bush era, Obama made only vague statements on the urgency of peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.

Obama avoiding zeroing in on the hard details that have made peace difficult in the last decades, including Jewish expansion and construction of settlements on Palestinian territory and demands by those of Palestinian origin to have a right of return to the land of their forefathers.

During his first week as president, Obama appeared concerned about the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. He appointed an experienced peace envoy, George J. Mitchell, who was expected to arrive today in the region.

In the interview, the U.S. president tried to stress the importance of resuming peace talks. But he also did not specify what the U.S. plans to do to make peace a reality.

“It's going to be difficult, it's going to take time.... What we want to do is to listen, set aside some of the preconceptions.... And I think if we do that, then there's a possibility at least of achieving some breakthroughs. I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state -- I'm not going to put a time frame on it -- that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people, that allows for trade with other countries, that allows the creation of businesses and commerce so that people have a better life.”

Arab commentators criticized Obama over the last week for not showing enough sympathy for the plight of Palestinians after the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip that killed more than 1,300 people, mainly civilians.

Some were quick to accuse him of keeping to an old American bias of favoring Israel’s security above all else.

Obama hinted that Arabs should not harbor the belief that strong U.S. support for Israel would waver during his term:

“Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount. But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side.”

Many Arabs think that the U.S. doesn't do enough to stop Israel from abusing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza or discourage the Jewish state from building illegal settlements on Palestinian land. The bias, in the eyes of Arabs, has for decades soiled the image of the U.S. in the region.

In response to the question of whether the U.S. would prepared to live with a nuclear Iran, Obama gave a decidedly toned down answer, avoiding the ultimatums and absolute statements of his predecessor:

“I said during the campaign that it is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of U.S. power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran.... Iran has acted in ways that's not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region ... their support of terrorist organizations in the past -- none of these things have been helpful.  But I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress.”

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, one of Washington's main allies in the region, warned last week that a 2002 Arab peace proposal would not remain on the table for long. Arabs contend that the deal, which offers normalized relations with all Arab states in return for Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land, has not been taken seriously.

Over the weekend, a high-profile former Saudi diplomat wrote an explosive piece for the Financial Times warning that his powerful oil-rich country could realign with Iran if the U.S. did not change course on the Middle East.

Obama was careful in his interview not to reveal his position with respect to the peace proposal:

“I might not agree with every aspect of the proposal, but it took great courage to put forward something that is as significant as that. I think that there are ideas across the region of how we might pursue peace. I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what's happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Analysts say Obama gets credit for his willingness to engage early in terms of the conflict, unlike former U.S. presidents.

“I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it's time to return to the negotiating table.... We're not going to wait until the end of my administration to deal with Palestinian and Israeli peace -- we're going to start now. It may take a long time to do, but we're going to do it now.”

U.S. presidents in the past, including Bill Clinton, who seemed committed to brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians were criticized for getting seriously involved in negotiations near the end of their terms.

-- Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: President Obama is interviewed in Washington by the Dubai-based Al Arabiya cable channel Monday. It was Obama's first formal television interview as president with an Arabic-language cable TV station. Credit: Associated Press / Al Arabiya

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