WASHINGTON – : President Barack Obama has given his first formal television interview as President to an Arabic cable TV network, telling Al-Arabiya that when it comes to Middle East matters, ‘all too often the United States starts by dictating’.
Mr Obama taped the interview with the Dubai- based network on Monday as his envoy to the Middle East, former senator George Mitchell, started an eight-day trip to the region and elsewhere.
The interview complemented the new US administration’s first efforts to reach out to Arab leaders, who have been wary at best of US efforts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Mr Obama said he felt it important to ‘get engaged right away’ in the Middle East and had directed Mr Mitchell to talk to ‘all the major parties’. His administration would craft an approach after that.
He reiterated the US commitment to Israel as an ally, and to its right to defend itself. But he suggested that Israel has hard choices to make and that his administration would press harder for it to do so.
‘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 realise that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people,’ he said.
On Iran, Mr Obama said the US would offer its arch-foe an extended hand of diplomacy if the Islamic Republic’s leaders ‘unclenched their fist’.
Ms Susan Rice, the new US envoy to the United Nations, made her debut earlier and pledged ‘vigorous’ and ‘direct’ nuclear diplomacy with Iran but warned of increased pressure if Teheran refused to halt uranium enrichment.
In the interview, Mr Obama told the Muslim world that ‘Americans are not your enemy’ and renewed his pledge to travel to make an address in the capital of a major Muslim nation.
‘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.’
The President called for a new partnership with the Muslim world ‘based on mutual respect and mutual interest’. He talked about growing up in Indonesia, the Muslim world’s most populous nation, and noted that he has Muslim relatives.
When asked about the highly personal tone of recent Al-Qaeda messages released since he won the presidential election last November, he agreed with his interviewer that the tone seemed ‘nervous’.
‘What that tells me is that their ideas are bankrupt,’ he said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, ASSOCIATED PRESS