BARACK OBAMA'S speech did not change the lesson plan at the local madrassa yesterday. Jihadists did not unstrap their bomb vests and Home Depot was still doing a brisk trade with new West Bank settlers.

Here at home, those who view all Muslims as terrorists heard no reasons to update their worldview, and quoting the Quran didn't do much to endear the president to folk in the Bible Belt.

So if you measured the effect of his hour-long speech at Cairo University by the number of people who rushed right out and beat their swords into plowshares, you probably were disappointed.

But it's a mistake to underestimate the power of words, especially those spoken by a man with Obama's gift for verbalizing transcendent truths.

Whether responding to those who see torture as a necessary evil or those who take comfort in the convenient shorthand of stereotypes, he has a knack for invoking our better angels and reminding us what it really means to be American, or even human.

Two weeks ago, in the shadow of our founding documents, he offered a contrast between the vengeful, fear-driven policies of Guantanamo and "the values that have been our best national security asset in war and in peace.

"From Europe to the Pacific, we have been the nation that shut down torture chambers and replaced tyranny with the rule of law.

"That is who we are."

That was the bold print on the calling card he left with our allies and enemies in the Middle East yesterday.

"America is not, nor will it ever be, at war with Islam," he said. But, he cautioned, we will "relentlessly confront violent terrorists who pose so great a threat to our national security."

He stressed the "unbreakable bond between Washington and Jerusalem" and, in a clear message to the radicals who dispute it, he said,"Israel's right to exist cannot be denied."

That was viewed with disdain by radical ruling parties in Syria and Iran. But he was equally blunt in his denunciation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Those Jewish settlements that have sprung up along the Palestinian-controlled West Bank of the Jordan are seen as a necessary buffer by Israelis and as an obstacle to peace by even moderate Palestinians.

"The U.S. does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israel settlements," he intoned. "It is time for these settlements to stop."

Daniel Herskovitz, Israel's minister of science and technology, rejected that out of hand.

"We have to draw the line when it comes to the 'natural growth' of settlements."

A spokesman for the Samaria and Binjamin settlements blasted Obama:

"Hussein Obama chose to accept the brazen lies of Arabs over stammered Jewish truths," he wrote.

The anti-settlement scolding didn't play well with Republicans back home, either.

"He seemed to place equal blame on Israel and Palestine," said House Minority Leader John Boehner. "The Israelis have a right to defend themselves."

Nor did Obama's attempt to reach out to Muslims placate radicals whose mistrust is deep-seated.

It doesn't help that his lofty principles were spoken in Egypt, where women's rights, religious freedoms and democracy are rejected out of hand, or that he began his Middle East tour in Saudi Arabia, home to an even-more-repressive regime than Egypt's.

But the mere fact of his willingness to sit down with people who had been characterized as "evil" by the last administration may signal a new direction in American diplomacy in the Middle East.

"No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust," the president said to his audience in Cairo and to those of us back home.

As a current event, this one may not even reverse the weeks of spin that will surely follow.

But in years to come, this may be seen as Cairo University's most historic commencement

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