- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2009

President Obama’s choice of an Arab news channel for his first sit-down television interview since taking office jolted the Muslim world Tuesday, with Saudi Arabia voicing approval and Iran offering a tepid wait-and-see assessment.

But a flare-up of violence in the Gaza Strip tempered enthusiasm over the new American president by illustrating the frailty of a cease-fire between Israel and the territory’s Hamas rulers.

A bomb blast killed an Israeli soldier near the Gaza border and triggered a brief gun battle as Israeli troops crossed the border in search of the attackers.

“We will respond, but there is no point in elaborating,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said shortly before Israel retaliated with an air strike.

Mr. Obama’s decision to give his first TV interview to the satellite news channel Al Arabiya was intended as an olive branch to the Middle East and to Muslims, the White House said.

“The president believed that this was an opportunity to show the world that he would be personally involved and engaged in seeking long-lasting peace in the Middle East,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

A prominent Palestinian lawmaker, Hanan Ashrawi, said of the interview: “People are starting to feel this isn’t just lip service.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called the Obama interview a positive development.

Prince Saud said the president expressed a “desire to have a strong and fruitful relationship with the Arab world.”

A Jordanian Cabinet minister said Mr. Obama’s Middle East vision matches Jordan’s desire for a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.

“It sounds like the new American administration seems keen on implementing the desires of the region rather than imposing their desires on the region,” said Nasser Judeh, the Cabinet minister.

Mr. Obama said he had instructed his special envoy for the Middle East, George Mitchell, to listen during his tour that began Tuesday in Egypt.

All too often, the president said, “the United States starts by dictating.”

Mr. Mitchell also will visit Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Prince Saud told the Saudi-funded and Dubai-based Al Arabiya that a resolution of the Middle East conflict would “automatically contribute to the resolution of other regional crises.”

Saudi Arabia put forward a peace initiative in 2002, in which 22 members of the Arab League would recognize Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal to its borders prior to the 1967 Six-Day War.

Iran said it was “awaiting concrete changes” from the new administration.

“On several occasions, our president has defined Iran’s views and the need for a change in U.S. policies from new U.S. statesmen,” government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham said, according to Iran’s official news agency.

Even Hamas, which originally dismissed Mr. Obama’s administration as a continuation of the Bush administration, has softened its stance.

“He respects the freedom of others. He respects the rights of others. He respects the rights of nations. He is forthcoming,” said Nasser al-Din Sahaer, the deposed Hamas deputy prime minister from the West Bank city of Nablus.

“Palestinians should invest in such a personality,” he said.

While top Israeli officials refrained from commenting, Israel’s Channel 1 News said that Mr. Mitchell’s main focus is bolstering efforts to strengthen the 2-week-old cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.

“I don’t expect friction on this visit,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, “but I do expect friction on future visits, and it doesn’t matter who is elected prime minister.”

Israelis are to vote Feb. 10 for a new parliament that will name the next prime minister.

• Claude Salhani, editor of the Middle East Times, reported from Washington. Joshua Mitnick reported from Tel Aviv, and Jon Ward contributed to this report from Washington.

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