President Barack Obamapledged he would reach out to the Arab world and said efforts to broker peace in the Middle East must extend beyond the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
Obama gave his first formal television interview as president to al-Arabiya, a Dubai-based Arabic-language television channel, last night in Washington. It was set to broadcast as his special envoy, George Mitchell, was flying to the Middle East on the new administration’s first diplomatic foray into the region.
Dispatching Mitchell demonstrates “that 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,” Obama said, according to a transcript released by the White House. “We are going to follow through on many of my commitments to do a more effective job of reaching out, listening, as well as speaking to the Muslim world.”
Obama also said he still plans to deliver a speech from a Muslim capital early in his presidency, though he wouldn’t say if he’s decided on a location.
Mitchell, appointed last week by Obama to work with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has the immediate task of consolidating a unilateral truce that Israel declared on Jan. 18, ending 22 days of an aerial and ground campaign against the militant Palestinian Hamas movement. The battle left 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.
The former Senate Democratic leader plans to visit the leaders of Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Obama said he instructed Mitchell to hear out all “major parties” to the conflict. U.S. officials said earlier that won’t include Hamas.
“What I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating,” Obama, 47, told al-Arabiya.
Obama said establishment of an independent Palestinian state existing side-by-side with Israel remains a viable goal.
“It’s possible for us to see a Palestinian state,” he said, adding, “I’m not going to put a time frame on it.” The president said it’s “impossible” to grapple with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not take into account events occurring in countries such as Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan or Afghanistan.
“If we are looking at the region as a whole and communicating a message to the Arab world and the Muslim world, that we are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest, then I think that we can make significant progress,” he said.
Obama stressed that Israel remains a “strong ally” of the U.S. and that Israel’s security is “paramount.”
“But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it’s important to achieve peace,” Obama said. “They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side.”
Obama said the U.S. can’t tell the Israelis or Palestinians what is best for them, though he is hopeful both sides will realize they must begin talking.
“It’s time to return to the negotiating table,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult. It’s going to take time.”
Obama’s decision to give the interview reflects his aim of forging stronger U.S. relations with Arab nations and Muslims. He pledged that the U.S. would do a “more effective job of reaching out” to the Muslim world.
He pointed out that members of his extended family are Muslim and that he had lived as a child in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.
“My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect,” he said.
Ultimately, that will help win the battle against terrorists, who have demonstrated “their ideas are bankrupt,” Obama said. Al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, are “nervous” because the Muslim world is realizing that the path of death and destruction isn’t yielding results, he said.
“I think the Muslim world has recognized that that path is leading no place, except more death and destruction,” Obama said.
Obama, who advocated direct diplomacy with rogue leaders during his campaign, said 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.”
He said it is important to use “all the tools of U.S. power, including diplomacy” to prevent a nuclear Iran. Over the next several months, Obama said his administration would be laying out a “general framework” to deal with Iran.
“And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us,” Obama said.