In one of his first interviews since taking office, President Barack Obama struck a conciliatory tone toward the Islamic world, saying he wanted to persuade Muslims that “the Americans are not your enemy” and adding that “the moment is ripe for both sides” to negotiate in the Middle East.
His remarks, recorded in Washington on Monday night, signaled a shift — in style and manner at least — from the Bush administration, offering a dialogue with Iran and what he depicted as a new readiness to listen rather than dictate.
Obama spoke as his special Middle East envoy, George J. Mitchell, arrived in Egypt to begin an eight-day tour that will include Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France and Britain. Mitchell planned to meet President Hosni Mubarak.
In a transcript published on Al-Arabiya’s English language Web site, Obama said he believed “the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away” and that he had told his envoy to “start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating.”
“Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what’s best for them. They’re going to have to make some decisions,” Obama said. “But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that, instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table.”
Shortly after the interview was broadcast, an explosion on the Israel-Gaza border on Tuesday killed an Israeli soldier. A Palestinian farmer was shot dead, according to Palestinian witnesses, in retaliatory gunfire. The incidents were the first known fatal incidents since the Gaza fighting ended 10 days ago.
Obama said Israel “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.”
He also said he believed it was “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.”
But he also said the Israel-Palestine conflict should not be seen in isolation. “I do think 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,” Obama said.
He spoke at length about America’s future relationship with the Muslim world, saying his “job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives.”