Israelis, Palestinians React To Obama Speech

Official Israeli reaction to President Obama's speech to the Muslim world was muted, but settler groups were outraged by his renewed call for a complete halt in settlement construction. In East Jerusalem, reaction was mixed.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now, reaction to the president's speech from Israelis and Palestinians. Relations between Israel and Washington have been tense recently, due to differences on the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Israel wants to continue expanding them. President Obama wants settlement activity stopped.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has our story.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Israel there was deep worry in advance of the President's speech today. In editorials, the main newspapers, all bemoaned the strained relations between Washington and Israel. Much was made of a report that the Israeli government, uncharacteristically, was not given an advance copy of the speech. In a single night, one editorial said, Israel has gone from being America's pampered only child to a shunned stepchild. After the speech, though…

Professor REUVEN HAZAN (Political Analyst, Hebrew University): A gasp of relief was heard from Jerusalem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Israeli analyst Reuven Hazan.

Prof. HAZAN: The fears in Israel did not materialize. Out of a 55-minute speech, he devoted five minutes to us. In other words, this was not about Israel, and it didn't really hurt Israel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, he says, President Obama has promised to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Israel's actions will be coming under increasing scrutiny.

Prof. HAZAN: The United States seems to be talking much more frankly with Israel now. And Israel has to understand that we don't have someone in Washington who's willing to be our shield. To put it metaphorically, if Obama turned his face towards the Muslim world today, he didn't necessarily give Israel the cold shoulder. It depends on what we make of it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What Israel's government is making of today's speech remains to be seen. The usually slick government press office took three hours to come out with a brief statement. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev took no questions.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Israeli Government): Israel shares President Obama's hope that the American efforts will indeed bring about a new era, the end of the conflict, Arab recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and peace and security for all in the Middle East. Israel is committed to this process, and we will make every effort to help this process succeed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: While official Israeli reaction was muted, settler groups were outraged by President Obama's renewed call for a complete halt in settlement construction. Shaul Goldstein is the mayor of the settlement Gush Etzion. He says America should not dictate to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. SHAUL GOLDSTEIN (Mayor, Gush Etzion): I know the power of the Americans. I know the pressure they can make if they want. I'm very worried, but not myself only. I think that most Israeli citizens in Israel today are fighting or are begging Netanyahu to fight for our legitimate independence. I don't think United States has the right to tell us what to do exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In today's speech, President Obama also addressed the militant group Hamas, which is in control of the Gaza strip, telling its leaders they should recognize the state of Israel and cease violent acts. Hamas gave a guarded response to Mr. Obama's speech. In a written statement, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum cautiously welcomed what he termed America's change in tone, but he said the speech lacked a concrete plan of action to stop, quote, "Israeli aggression and to support Palestinian rights." The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, was more positive in his reaction to Obama's speech, saying it was an important step.

(Soundbite of television)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a café in East Jerusalem, Palestinians watched the speech dubbed into Arabic on flat screen TVs mounted on the wall. Reaction here, too, was divided. Fuyat Kari(ph) is the headmaster of a nearby school.

Mr. FUYAT KARI: (Through Translator) What Obama has said is beautiful prose. But we're not able to see yet any of its effects here on the ground. All these leaders over the years have said beautiful words, but they have no effect on the ground. We'll have to wait and see.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But 22-year-old Amira Javel(ph) says whatever President Obama achieves in the future, he already made an important contribution today.

Ms. AMIRA JAVEL: (Through Translator) Before Obama, Islam was stereotyped as terrorism. Obama's stance has surprised the Islamic world positively, and I think his speech will change the perception people have about us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says, President Obama is a man of courage, and I hope the world listens to him.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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Obama's Speech Prompts Guarded Optimism

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech just outside Tehran, Iran. i i

hide captionIranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech during a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at his mausoleum just outside Tehran, Iran. Khamenei says the nations of the Middle East "hate the United States from the bottom of their hearts."

Sajjad Safari/Mehr News Agency/AP
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech just outside Tehran, Iran.

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech during a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at his mausoleum just outside Tehran, Iran. Khamenei says the nations of the Middle East "hate the United States from the bottom of their hearts."

Sajjad Safari/Mehr News Agency/AP

Much of the Muslim world and Israel reacted with guarded optimism to President Obama's speech Thursday in Cairo, Egypt, but Iran's supreme leader rebuffed the message of conciliation, saying mere words could not erase deep hatred of the United States.

In a speech aimed at setting a new tone for U.S.-Muslim relations after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Obama told an audience at Cairo University that he seeks "a new beginning ... based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

Obama said Israel must halt settlements in the West Bank and that Palestinians must have their own independent state.

A spokeswoman for Jewish settlers in the West Bank criticized the speech as "out of touch with reality." And a joint statement from several radical Palestinian factions, including Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that controls the Gaza Strip, dismissed the address as an attempt to "mislead people."

Obama promised a withdrawal from Iraq by 2012 and said the U.S. has no desire for bases or a permanent military presence in Afghanistan.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, called Obama's speech "a good start and an important step toward a new American policy."

He said Obama's reference to the suffering of the Palestinians is a "clear message to Israel that a just peace is built on the foundations of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital."

Israel said it hopes Obama's message can help lead to "the beginning of the end" of conflict between with the Arab world. A government statement Thursday said Israel will "do all it can" to widen regional peace while preserving its own security.

In his speech, Obama recalled his childhood spent in Indonesia, where he "heard the call of the azaan (call to prayer) at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk." At several points in the speech, he referred to the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and its teachings of peace.

"The use of Quranic sayings plays a big part in a positive change of picture, but there is a necessity for action," said Iraqi government spokesman Ali Al-Dabbagh, who called the speech "historic and important" and "a new start."

Obama referred to the difficult past relations between Tehran and Washington and the current dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions, saying that "any nation — including Iran" should be able to pursue a peaceful nuclear program.

But the reaction from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, showed no sign that relations could be eased. He said the nations of the Middle East "hate the United States from the bottom of their hearts."

"The new U.S. government seeks to transform this image," Khamenei said at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the radical cleric who led the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. "I say firmly that this will not be achieved by talking, speeches and slogans."

Obama's address coincided with the release of remarks by Osama bin Laden that appeared aimed at trying to undermine any message of reconciliation. The al-Qaida leader said Muslims' alliances with Christians and Jews would annul their faith and urged them to fight allies of Westerners in Muslim countries.

Obama reserved a strong rebuke for Muslims who promote attacks against innocents, saying the Quran condemns such acts and stating clearly that the U.S. will "relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security."

"We reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women and children," he said. "And it is my first duty as president to protect the American people."

"Obama's speech is an attempt to mislead people and create more illusions to improve America's aggressive image in the Arab and Islamic world," said a joint statement by eight Damascus, Syria-based radical Palestinian factions, including Hamas.

Reaction among ordinary Muslims, from Algeria to Indonesia, was mixed.

Baghdad resident Mithwan Hussein called Obama "brave" and hoped for "a new chapter with the Islamic and Arab nations."

But a refugee at the Baqaa refugee camp in Jordan was skeptical and wondered if it wasn't just the latest empty rhetoric from an American president.

"Bush and Clinton said the same about a Palestinian state, but they've done nothing, so why should we believe this guy?" said Ali Tottah, 82, who is originally from the West Bank town of Nablus.

Said Lacet, 56, a civil servant in Algeria, said, "Obama is clearly admitting that Bush's military offensive in Iraq was a mistake."

Edi Kusyanto, a teacher from the school in Jakarta, Indonesia, that Obama attended as a child, said he thinks the U.S. president envisions "a world that is pluralistic, where different religions can live peacefully together." But in the end, he said, it was "still a speech about what America wants."

In concluding his remark, Obama quoted passages promoting nonviolence from the Quran, the Talmud and the Bible to highlight the similarity of the teachings and the interest of all to live together peacefully.

But the reaction of some Israeli settlers in the West Bank showed just how difficult that reconciliation could prove.

Aliza Herbst, a spokeswoman for Yesha, the West Bank settlers' council, dismissed Obama's speech as "naive" and "out of touch with reality."

"You can have your speechwriters find every good thing a Muslim has ever done," she said. "But more modern history is that the Muslim world is at war with the Western world."

From NPR staff and wire reports

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