- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

AMMAN, Jordan | President Obama’s much-heralded speech on U.S. relations with the Islamic world provoked sharply differing reactions on the either side of the Middle East’s great divide.

Many Israelis worried the president said too much, while many in the Muslim world cautioned that Mr. Obama’s talk Thursday of a “new beginning” is less important than what his administration will do to change America’s image and policies in the region.

The Muslim world want to see “implementation, not just talk on the Palestinian issue,” said Jamil Abu Bark, spokesman for Jordan’s powerful Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement. “It doesn’t need a speech but action. We want on action on the ground.”

But Mr. Obama’s call for an even-handed treatment of Israeli and Palestinian grievances brought a wary response from the government of conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and outright rejection from the Israeli settlers on disputed lands, whom Mr. Obama again singled out for criticism in Cairo.

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Aliza Herbst, spokeswoman for the Council of Jewish Settlers in Judea and Samaria, likened Mr. Obama’s speech to singer John Lennon’s utopian ballad “Imagine.”

“When it comes from an American president, it’s scary,” she said. “He’s trying to make world peace and we’re going to pay for it. He’s demanding things that aren’t going to happen.”

An equally harsh reaction came in a joint statement by eight radical Palestinian factions based in Syria, including Hamas, which control the Gaza Strip. Mr. Obama restated U.S. demands that Hamas recognize Israel and renounce violence as a pre-condition for a final peace deal.

“Obama’s statement is an attempt to mislead people and create more illusions to improve America’s aggressive image in the Arab and Islamic world,” the statement said.

Mr. Netanyahu’s government praised the speech in general terms, but avoided any mention of Mr. Obama’s call for a halt to new Israeli settlements in the West Bank and his unequivocal support for an independent Palestinian state.

By contrast, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate battling Hamas for control of the Palestinian territories, quickly endorsed Mr. Obama’s words, saying they heralded a major change in American policy.

“The part of Obama’s speech regarding the Palestinian issue is an important step under new beginnings,” Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said. “It shows there is a new and different American policy toward the Palestinian issue.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei did not refer explicitly to Mr. Obama’s Cairo speech, which included the first acknowledgement by a U.S. president of the American role in Iran’s 1953 coup. But in a speech in Tehran, the Iranian leader also insisted that mere words from the new president were not enough.

Saying the nations of the Middle East “hate the United States from the bottom of their hearts,” the ayatollah said, “The new U.S. government seeks to transform this image. I say firmly, that this will not be achieved by talking, speech and slogans.”

Leaders of U.S. allies in the Muslim world rushed to praise Mr. Obama’s remarks, saying they could help reshape popular attitudes on American policy after the difficult post-9/11 years.

Turkish President Abdullah Gill called the speech “realistic,” while Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said, “The overall message of the speech that asks for restarting relations with the Islamic world based on mutual trust and mutual interest is very important.”

Mr. Karzai, under political pressure at home as Mr. Obama’s escalation of the U.S. war in Afghanistan has coincided with new civilian casualties, added, “The issue of respecting human life, where he quotes the holy Koran that killing one innocent person is like killing the whole of humanity, resonates well with Afghans.”

Labib Kamhawi, a Jordan-based political analyst and critic of U.S. policy in the region, said he was “really impressed” by Mr. Obama’s shift in rhetoric.

“I did not expect it to have such a wide outreach on all major issues,” he said. “He was fair on basics, soft on tone. He avoided using provocative terms of the [Bush administration] like the ‘war on terror,’” Mr. Kamhawi said.

Reactions on Capitol Hill were equally divided, with top Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry of Massachusetts hailing the president’s remarks, while many pro-Israel lawmakers said the speech was at times too conciliatory to Arab regimes hostile to American interests.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, Ohio Republican, called Mr. Obama’s remarks at times “thoughtful and optimistic,” but said other conciliatory passages on Iran and the Palestinians “made America look weak.”

“With regard to the Palestinian-Israeli issue, he seemed to place equal blame on the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Mr. Boehner said. “I just don’t think the Israelis deserve to be put in the same playpen with terrorists.”

Without mentioning him by name, Mr. Obama in Cairo referred to Rep. Keith Ellison, the two-term Minnesota Democrat who is the first Muslim elected to Congress. Mr. Ellison, who said he did not know the president would discuss him in the address, said he approved of the blunt messages delivered to both Israel and the Arab states.

“That’s absolutely a good thing,” he said in an interview posted on the Web site of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. “This is not a one-way street. It’s a two-way street.”

Democracy advocates, who feared Mr. Obama would pull back from President Bush’s aggressive push for political reforms in the Islamic world, had cautious praise for Mr. Obama’s words on the subject.

“It was actually better than we expected, but not as good as we hoped,” Ayman Nour, one of the most prominent dissidents challenging the long rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, told Associated Press.

“His stance on democracy was very general, a bit weak. We had hoped for more detail,” said Mr. Nour, recently released from prison for his political activities.

Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, called Mr. Obama’s address an “American speech, full of optimism and ‘let’s leave history behind.’” He said Israel could even benefit if the speech increases U.S. leverage and influence on Arab states.

But he warned the follow-up will be critical because “Obama has promised far more than he can possibly deliver.”

Mr. Obama’s remarks clearly did not defuse all of the anger and cynicism among ordinary Muslims, many of whom say they have heard promises of a new U.S. approach to the region long before Mr. Obama took office.

Amman jeweler Ibrahim Hreish said Mr. Obama’s tone and rhetoric may be new, but that the speech fell far short on promises of genuine change.

“The Palestinians continue to pay the price for the Holocaust,” said Mr. Hreish. Mr. Obama “didn’t mention that the Palestinians were massacred in Gaza.’

“Obama, like other U.S. presidents, is trying to appear as though he wants to solve the Palestinian problem, but in the end they do nothing.”

Josh Mitnick reported from Tel Aviv. Kara Rowland contributed to this story from Washington.

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