Yesterday evening in the Map Room, President Obama sat for his first formal TV interview, with Al-Arabiya’s Hisham Melhem.
On his advice to George Mitchell, the special envoy to the Middle East who just left the U.S. for the region last night: "What I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating — in the past on some of these issues — and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved. So let’s listen. He’s going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response. Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what’s best for them. They’re going to have to make some decisions. But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table."
On the U.S.-Israel relationship: "Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel’s security is paramount. But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side."
On the possibility of Palestinian state: "I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state — I’m not going to put a time frame on it — that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people, that allows for trade with other countries, that allows the creation of businesses and commerce so that people have a better life. And, look, I think anybody who has studied the region recognizes that the situation for the ordinary Palestinian in many cases has not improved. And the bottom line in all these talks and all these conversations is, is a child in the Palestinian Territories going to be better off? Do they have a future for themselves? And is the child in Israel going to feel confident about his or her safety and security? And if we can keep our focus on making their lives better and look forward, and not simply think about all the conflicts and tragedies of the past, then I think that we have an opportunity to make real progress."
On the rhetoric about him by Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden: "They seem nervous…I think that when you look at the rhetoric that they’ve been using against me before I even took office…what that tells me is that their ideas are bankrupt. There’s no actions that they’ve taken that say a child in the Muslim world is getting a better education because of them, or has better health care because of them. In my inauguration speech, I spoke about: You will be judged on what you’ve built, not what you’ve destroyed. And what they’ve been doing is destroying things.
"And over time, I think the Muslim world has recognized that that path is leading no place, except more death and destruction. Now, my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries…the largest one, Indonesia. And so what I want to communicate is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I’ve come to understand is that regardless of your faith — and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers — regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams.
"And my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task."
On the language President Bush used — "war on terror," Islamic fascism — and how he frames it in a different way, specifically against one group called al Qaeda and their collaborators: "The language we use matters. And what we need to understand is, is that there are extremist organizations — whether Muslim or any other faith in the past — that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith’s name. And so you will I think see our administration be very clear in distinguishing between organizations like al Qaeda — that espouse violence, espouse terror and act on it — and people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop. We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians and we will hunt them down. But to the broader Muslim world what we are going to be offering is a hand of friendship."