By Michael D. Shear and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
President Obama expressed optimism yesterday about the prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but he said a peace accord will take time and require new thinking about the problems of the Middle East as a whole.
Obama's comments came during his first formal television interview as president, with a correspondent from al-Arabiya, the Dubai-based satellite network aimed at Arab audiences.
The president sat for the interview, at the White House, moments after officially dispatching George J. Mitchell, his special envoy for Middle East peace, to the region last evening.
"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," Obama told al-Arabiya. "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."
Mitchell will be on the road until Feb. 3, according to the State Department. He will travel to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, France and England. He also hopes to go to Istanbul, the site of talks between Israel and Syria.
"The administration will actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its neighbors," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.
In the television 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."
The president declined to reveal where he plans to give his first major speech in a foreign country. In the past he had said he would speak in a Muslim capital sometime within the first 100 days of his administration.
And he reiterated a point from his inaugural address: He plans to reach out to Muslims around the world who are willing to "unclench your fist" but will go after terrorists who continue to be bent on destruction.
"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," Obama said in the interview.
He said that the United States must be "willing to talk to Iran" and that he would lay out a "framework" for those discussions over the next several months.
Wood said Mitchell will not have contact with Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, but he did not rule out the possibility that Mitchell would also visit Syria or travel to Gaza.
Mitchell's quick start -- just four days after he was named -- appears designed to showcase the administration's determination that it will engage more vigorously on Middle East peace than did the Bush administration.
"The cause of peace in the Middle East is important to the United States and our national interests. It's important to me personally," Obama told reporters while meeting with Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House before Mitchell's departure.