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Obama the Sphinx

Obama and Mitchell

President Obama officially launched his push for peace in the Middle East yesterday, sending his new envoy George Mitchell to the region and declaring his desire for genuine progress -- "not just photo-ops."

Obama's sense of urgency -- and his aversion to photo ops -- contrasts starkly with former President Bush's half-hearted last-minute effort to bring the fractious parties together.

But it's unclear how much Obama's basic view of the region contrasts with that of his predecessor.

He says Mitchell's first visit will primarily be a listening tour, and he has not yet declared any obvious shifts in U.S. policy. But I'll bet that his view of the region will be more complex and considerably less black-and-white than Bush's. If nothing else, he is likely to expand the scope of the debate within the White House to include those who hold critical views of some Israeli actions.

Will he abandon Bush's absolute support for Israel and instead become an "honest broker" -- which requires some leaning on all parties? So far, it's all just a matter of speculation.

There's no doubt, however, that Obama, in choosing the Arab television network al-Arabiya for the first sit-down interview of his presidency, made a profound statement about the importance he places in restoring good relations with the Muslim world.

Obama's Words

Obama briefly spoke to reporters before a meeting yesterday with Mitchell, the former senator who helped resolve the Northern Ireland conflict, and newly minted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "The cause of peace in the Middle East is important to the United States and our national interests. It's important to me personally," he said.

"And the charge that Senator Mitchell has is to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress. And when I say progress, not just photo-ops, but progress that is concretely felt by people on the ground, so that people feel more secure in their lives, so that they feel that the hopes and dreams and aspirations of their children can be met; that is going to be our task.

"It is not something that we're going to be able to do overnight, but I am absolutely confident that, if the United States is engaged in a consistent way and in an early fashion, that we can make genuine progress."

Here is the transcript and video of Obama's interview with Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of al-Arabiya.

Describing Mitchell's charge, Obama explained that "what I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating -- in the past on some of these issues --and we don't always know all the factors that are involved. So let's listen. He's going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response."

Obama stressed that "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."

The main purpose of his interview, however, was outreach.

"Now, 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. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries," he said, in an unusually personal reference.

"But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration's actions. And I think that what you will see over the next several years is that I'm not going to agree with everything that some Muslim leader may say, or what's on a television station in the Arab world -- but I think that what you'll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure that I'm speaking to them, as well."

Domestically, meanwhile, he said 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."

The Coverage

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "In office less than a week, Obama has moved more rapidly than any predecessor to launch a vigorous diplomatic effort into the Arab-Israeli minefield. . . .

"What's not yet known is how Obama will deal with the setbacks his efforts will inevitably encounter. The landscape for diplomacy is bleak, with an Israeli public deeply skeptical of peace efforts and about to vote in national elections, and Palestinians split between the moderate Palestinian Authority and the radical Islamic group Hamas. . . .

"Even if Obama's foray into peacemaking is no more successful than previous presidents', the new president has set a different tone with the Arab world. Bush waited seven years before trying to broker talks, rarely got involved personally and often sent his special envoys into the region without explicitly empowering them to speak for him."

Glenn Kessler wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "Few words are as closely studied as a U.S. president's comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. . . .

"Thus far, Obama appears to have hewed closely to the line held by the Bush administration, among the most pro-Israel presidencies in U.S. history. But [at the State Department on Thursday] he appeared to show greater empathy for the plight of the Palestinians and offered an unusually detailed outline for securing the recent Gaza cease-fire. . . .

"Nadia Hijab, senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington, said the 'choice of Mitchell sends a clear signal that the United States is going to be back to being an honest broker and will move away from being Israel's lawyer.'

"During the campaign, Obama was viewed with suspicion by some Jewish groups, so he took pains to repeatedly emphasize his strong support of Israel and its need for security. But, in an unguarded moment captured on tape during a private gathering in Cleveland a year ago, Obama challenged Jewish groups to allow for greater debate on Israeli actions.

"'This is where I get to be honest, and I hope I'm not out of school here,' Obama said in a transcript published by JTA, a respected news service on Jewish issues. 'I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel, and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we're not going to make progress.'

"Obama added, 'One of the things that struck me when I went to Israel was how much more open the debate was around these issues in Israel than they are sometimes here in the United States. It's very ironic.'"

Mark Landler wrote in the New York Times last week that Obama had "signaled no major shift in American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue."

But Michael Hirsh wrote for Newsweek that Obama's comments at the State Department "signaled strongly that his approach to the Mideast would immediately move from unswerving and unquestioning support of Israel, as seen in the last eight years, to more of a broker's role. While making the requisite commitment to Israel's security--and its right to respond to rocket fire from Gaza--he also said it was unacceptable to permit 'a future without hope for the Palestinians.' He called for an immediate opening of the Gaza border, which must have come to a surprise to those Israelis lulled to sleep by Bush's permanent endorsement of Israel's every action over the last eight years."

Michael D. Shear and Glenn Kessler write in The Washington Post about Obama's Al-Arabiya interview: "Obama reiterated U.S. support for Israel, calling it 'a strong ally of the United States' and saying he will 'continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount.'

"But in tone, his comments were a stark departure from those of former president George W. Bush, who often described the Middle East conflict in terms that drew criticism from Palestinians.

"By contrast, Obama went out of his way to say that if America is 'ready to initiate a new partnership [with the Muslim world] based on mutual respect and mutual interest, then I think that we can make significant progress.'"

Time's Scott MacLeod analyzes the text of the interview and concludes: "Here's what we learned in the al-Arabiya interview:

"Obama is critical of past U.S. Middle East policy, including insensitivity to the perspectives of the people in the region. . . .

"Obama is not kidding when he says he intends to plunge into peacemaking immediately. . . .

"Obama seems to see the need to address the legitimate interests of Arabs in the Middle East conflict, but he's going to judge their position based on their actions and not merely their words. . . .

"Obama seems intent on winning over the Arab world, to bolster U.S. credibility in pushing his Middle East policy, by leveraging his personal popularity on the Muslim street based largely on his Muslim roots and underdog image and by effectively campaigning for support among Muslims as he did for American voters. This could have a significant impact on his ability to win backing for compromises from the Arab world needed to achieve peace. The Arab street as well as Arab governments were skeptical even of Bush's better Middle East initiatives simply because they didn't trust him."

By Dan Froomkin  |  January 27, 2009; 2:19 PM ET
Categories:  Middle East  
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