President Barack Obama pledged on Thursday to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” imploring America and the Islamic world to drop their suspicions of one another and forge new alliances to confront violent extremism and heal religious divides.
“We have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world we seek,” he said. “A world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God’s children are respected.”
He dwelled on Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan but reserved some of his sharpest words for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He offered no major initiatives on the Middle East peace process although he put Israelis and Palestinians on notice that he intends to deal directly with what he sees as intransigence on key issues.
The speech in Cairo, which he called “the timeless city,” redeemed a promise he made nearly two years ago while running for president. It was, perhaps, the riskiest speech of his young presidency, and Obama readily conceded that not every goal would be easily or quickly achieved.
“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition,” he said. “Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
His message was sweeping and forceful — at times scolding — promoting democracy in Egypt, warning Israelis against building new settlements, and acknowledging that the United States had fallen short of its ideals, particularly in the Iraq war. It also evoked a new and nuanced tone, and some of Obama’s language drew appreciative applause from his audience of 3,000 invited guests in the Major Reception Hall at Cairo University.
Several times, for instance, he spoke of “Palestine,” rather than the more ambiguous term often used by American leaders, “future Palestinian state.” And, in reference to the Palestinians, he pointedly mentioned “the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation.”
He described the bond between the United States and Israel as “unbreakable,” and urged Hamas, the Islamic militant group in control of the Gaza Strip, to stop violence. But in his next breath, Obama said Israel must curtail its expansion of West bank settlements and recognize Palestinian aspirations for statehood. He also acknowledged that Hamas, which the United States labels a terrorist organization, “does have some support among some Palestinians.”
“But they also have responsibilities,” Obama said, listing them as “to end violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel’s right to exist.”
“Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s,” Obama said.