- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

ROME (AP) - Syrian President Bashar Assad has expressed worry over what he sees as Israeli society’s turn to the right, according to a newspaper interview published Wednesday.

Assad also said he would like to meet President Barack Obama, the Rome daily La Repubblica reported.

Expectations for Obama are high following the administration of George W. Bush, Assad said, according to the newspaper. He was quoted as saying Obama needs to restore American credibility, and his first steps are encouraging.

“The expectations are great for a new language signaling respect toward different cultures and helping ease tensions, especially religious tensions, caused by Bush when he spoke of crusades,” Assad was quoted as saying.

Obama has pledged to deliver a major speech in a Muslim nation early in his presidency.

Asked if he would like to meet the new U.S. president, Assad said: “Yes, in principle, it would be a very positive signal. But I’m not after a souvenir photo. I hope I can see him to talk.”

Assad said that, while in theory he could envision a resumption of negotiations with Israel, he views the possibility as moving further away. Israel will soon have a new government with hard-line Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm.

“I’m not worried at the thought of Netanyahu, but by Israeli society’s turning right, as reflected by Netanyahu’s rise,” he was quoted as saying. “That’s the biggest obstacle to peace.”

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