Friday, June 5, 2009

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

Many Israelis worried that the president had 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 reshape America’s image and policies in the region.

The Muslim world wants 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 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.

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.”

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An equally harsh reaction came in a joint statement by eight radical Palestinian factions based in Syria, including Hamas, which controls 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.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali 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.”

In Baghdad, Mr. Obama’s speech led the evening news broadcasts, but quickly gave way to stories about local politics and corruption.

Outside a furniture store in the Baghdad shopping district of Karrada, a modest crowd of about 15 people stood quietly around a television that had been set up to broadcast the speech - significantly smaller than past gatherings to watch Iraq-related presidential speeches.

As Mr. Obama’s promise to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2012 was translated, some of them nodded.

A 23-year-old restaurant worker, who called himself Abu Ali, said, “I am happy he is saying this,” but added, laughing, “Why don’t you come back here and ask me again after 2012?”

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 Gul called the speech “realistic,” while Afghan 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.”

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary-general of the Saudi Arabia-based Organization of the Islamic Conference, said in a telephone interview that “it was a very candid, a very balanced speech.”

The “comprehensive and constructive” speech had a “positive tone,” said Mr. Ihsanoglu, who traveled to Cairo to hear the speech in person.

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 A. 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.”

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,” Mr. Hreish said. 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.”

• Joshua Mitnick reported from Tel Aviv. Kara Rowland in Washington, Daniel Smith in Baghdad and Jamana al Tamimi in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this article.

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