PARIS — In an interview with one of the Middle East’s major broadcasters, President Barack Obama struck a conciliatory tone toward the Islamic world, saying he wanted to persuade Muslims that “the Americans are not your enemy.” He also said “the moment is ripe” for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
The interview with Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language news channel based in Dubai, signaled a shift — in style and manner at least — from the Bush administration, offering what he depicted as a new readiness to listen rather than dictate.
It was Mr. Obama’s first televised interview from the White House and the first with any foreign news outlet.
In a transcript published on Al Arabiya’s English language Web site, Mr. Obama said it is his job “to communicate to the Muslim world that the Americans are not your enemy.”
He added that “we sometimes make mistakes,” but said that America was not born as a colonial power and that he hoped for a restoration of “the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.”
Mr. Obama spoke as his special Middle East envoy, George J. Mitchell, arrived in Egypt to begin an eight-day tour that will include stops in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France and Britain. In Egypt, Mr. Mitchell planned to meet President Hosni Mubarak.
In discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Obama told Al Arabiya that “the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away.” He said that he told Mr. Mitchell 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,” Mr. 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.”
Several hours after he spoke on Monday night, an explosion on the Israel-Gaza border killed an Israeli soldier and threatened new violence. The war in Gaza, which lasted three weeks, had stopped 10 days ago when both sides declared unilateral cease fires.
Mr. 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 that although he would not put a time frame on it, he believed it was “possible for us to see a Palestinian state.” He described the state as one “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,” Mr. 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.”
He drew a distinction between “extremist organizations” committed to violence and “people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop.”
“We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians and we will hunt them down,” he said. “But to the broader Muslim world what we are going to be offering is a hand of friendship.”
He also said it was “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.”
“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,” he said.
He was not asked whether he would continue the policy of former President George Bush in refusing to exclude military action in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
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