CAIRO, Egypt - In a dramatic overture to the Muslim world, welcomed in unlikely quarters there but greeted also with skepticism and wariness, President Obama yesterday spoke more bluntly than any U.S. president before him in an effort to close a traumatic era in U.S.-Muslim relations and bridge the wide chasm dividing Arabs and Israelis.
While Iran's top cleric dismissed the speech as just "words," another high-level Iranian cleric called it "an initial step for removing misconceptions."
In a 55-minute address from Cairo University, Obama called Israel's settlements in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank illegitimate and said they must stop.
He chastised Arabs for crude caricatures of America and conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He also acknowledged that the United States sometimes "acted contrary to our ideals" in its initial response to 9/11.
He asked Muslims to join the fight against violent extremists. "The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer," Obama said.
Asserting that many Muslims privately recognize that Israel won't go away and that many Israelis acknowledge the need for a Palestinian state, he called for peace in the Mideast. "It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true," he said.
Obama's speech, beamed to homes and coffeehouses from Morocco to Malaysia, was the capstone of his efforts since he took office to address grievances among the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, including a key source of their anger - the unresolved Mideast conflict.
"I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," he told 3,000 invited guests. In their midst were Egyptian dissidents, as well as the son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak did not attend but met Obama earlier in the day.
The speech also cemented a significant shift in U.S. policy in the Mideast policy, away from former President George W. Bush's unstinting advocacy for Israel toward a more balanced approach that casts Washington as mediator between Arabs and Jews.
Obama reaffirmed the United States' "unbreakable" bonds with Israel, and with his visit today to the former Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany in mind, said that to deny the Holocaust was "baseless, ignorant, and hateful" - a comment repudiating Holocaust denials by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In virtually the next breath, however, Obama spoke of Palestinians' suffering under the "daily humiliations" of occupation and in hopeless refugee camps.
"Just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's," he declared.
Many received the speech optimistically.
"We had high expectations, and I believe he met our expectations in terms of the vision and how he sees the world," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said, noting the new evenhanded approach to Arabs and Israelis.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in advance of the speech that any statements by Obama were just "words, speech, and slogan" that would leave in place sanctions designed to persuade the nation to stop its nuclear-weapons program.
But Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a cleric who was vice president under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, called the speech "compensation" for a hostile environment he said Bush created.
"This can be an initial step for removing misconceptions between world of Islam and the West," he said.
Not all were mollified.
"Obama's speech is an attempt to mislead people and create more illusions to improve America's aggressive image in the Arab and Islamic world," said a joint statement by eight extremist Palestinian factions, including Hamas, based in Damascus, Syria.
Israeli officials reacted cautiously, deflecting Obama's position on West Bank settlements and focusing instead on portions of the speech more palatable to Israel.
"We welcome the president's commitment to the state of Israel's security and his clear call to accept and integrate her into the region," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in Washington.
Back in Washington, there was a rebuke: "To propose a moral equivalency to the history of Palestinian and Israeli pursuits is utterly unjustifiable," said Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
Now that Obama has fulfilled his campaign promise to give a speech in a major Muslim capital, speculation inevitably will turn to whether his high-sounding rhetoric will prompt change.
"If Barack Obama cannot elicit a positive response from Muslim audiences, I don't know what American president can," said veteran analyst David Makovsky, coauthor of the forthcoming book Myths, Illusions and Peace.
For U.S. presidents over six decades, the Middle East has been impervious to change. Bush's attempts to remold the region through wars and democratization resulted in a backlash that handed power to extremist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
In Cairo, even some who liked Obama's message were skeptical of its practical impact.
"Will there be a state of Palestine in Obama's administration? I doubt it," said Menna El Massry, 19, a law student. "Not because I don't think there should be a state - I do - but because I don't think the world is ready for that yet."
Arab leaders, wary of Iran's growing power and their own young, disgruntled populations, seem leery of dramatic moves toward peace with Israel or political openings at home.
Israel is governed by a new, right-wing coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has not yet said that he's ready to accept the "two-state" solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Obama seeks.
On Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Israel is offering substantially less than the complete freeze on construction the White House wants.
Obama trod only briefly into two areas that would have been the centerpiece of any similar speech by Bush: Iran's suspected quest for a nuclear weapon and the need for more democracy in the Muslim world.
He acknowledged U.S. errors and missteps. He called the Iraq conflict "a war of choice," reiterated his order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center that is detested among Muslims, and recalled the U.S. role in overthrowing Iran's democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953.
He also spoke in detail about the Holocaust, in language that Arabs and Muslims typically don't hear in speeches aimed at gaining their support.
The Cairo University audience interrupted more than 30 times to applaud, including when Obama used his middle name, Hussein, tying him to his Kenyan Muslim father.
"We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan determined to
kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case."
"Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible."
On Arab-Israeli peace:
"The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.
That is in Israel's interests, Palestine's interests, America's interests, and the world's interests. And that's why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all of the patience and dedication that the task requires."
"I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed, confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration
of justice, government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people, the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas. They are human rights."
On women's rights:
"Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity, men and women, to reach their full potential. I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal. And I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice."
Watch or read Obama's entire Cairo speech via http://go.philly.com/cairo
It's a family weekend in Paris
for the Obamas. A White House official said Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, will join their mother, Michelle Obama, when she flies to Paris today to join the president.
It will be the girls' first excursion abroad as daughters of an American president.
President Obama arrives in
Paris today for a meeting tomorrow with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and D-Day commemorations in Normandy. He is due to return Sunday to the White House, but the first lady and the girls plan to linger in Paris.
- Associated Press