ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Another thorny foreign policy problem before the new Obama administration is the Middle East peace process. President Obama gave his first interview since taking office today, and he spoke to the Arab television network Al Arabiya. He talked about his instructions to his new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, who is on a trip to the region.
(Soundbite of Al Arabiya broadcast)
President BARACK OBAMA: 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.
SIEGEL: Mitchell is in Egypt today and Israel tomorrow trying to build a durable cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Meantime, one of Washington's most powerful Arab allies is sounding a warning about the importance of Mitchell's task. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Cairo.
PETER KENYON: President Obama's willingness to engage early in Mideast peacemaking has been welcomed around the world. But among America's Arab allies in the region, concern is growing that Washington won't move forcefully enough to repair what they see as the serious damage done by the Israeli military operation in Gaza. Writing in the Financial Times on Friday, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former ambassador to the U.S. and Britain and longtime Saudi intelligence chief, used startlingly strong terms to describe the situation Mitchell is stepping into. Prince Turki wrote of the Bush administration's, quote, "sickening legacy in the region" and accused it of, quote, "contributing to the slaughter of innocents" through its "arrogant attitude about the butchery in Gaza."
He added that if Washington wants to keep playing a leadership role in the Mideast and maintain ties with Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, it must, quote, "drastically revise America's policies" regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mideast analysts say such warnings reflect the sense of betrayal and insecurity felt by Arab regimes that aligned with the U.S. despite its staunch support of Israel. Dia Rashwan at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies says there have been three earthquakes in the past five years: the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and Israel's wars in 2006 against Hezbollah in Lebanon and against Hamas in Gaza.
Mr. DIA RASHWAN (Senior Analyst and Researcher, Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies): We are in the face of a dangerous situation inside Arab world. The regimes now, I think they are out of validity. They cannot defend the United States policies and they cannot defend themselves.
KENYON: In his warning to the Obama administration, Saudi Prince Turki revealed that during Israel's ground offensive in Gaza, Iran's president had written to Saudi King Abdullah urging him to lead a jihad, or Muslim holy war, against Israel. Turki acknowledged that such an event would lead to unprecedented chaos and bloodshed in the region, but warned that the kingdom would not be able to resist such calls for long without dramatic changes in U.S. policy. Analyst Issandr el Amrani with the International Crisis Group says it's possible this rising hostility to Israel is just a flare of anger at the suffering of Palestinians, but it could also reflect a crucial shift in Arab opinion away from negotiating with the Jewish state and back to fighting against it.
Mr. ISSANDR EL AMRANI (Analyst, International Crisis Group): So we are seeing an intensification of this cold war, if you want, between this new resistance front - Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah - and those Arab states that are not only concerned about the rise of Iran, but also concerned about the way politics in the region is changing.
KENYON: El Amrani says the so-called moderate Arab states led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia are threatened by the blossoming support among their own citizenry for Hezbollah and Hamas, groups that reject the past three decades of slow, stumbling progress toward recognizing Israel's right to exist and trying to negotiate a Palestinian state alongside it. By 2002, when the Saudis floated a comprehensive peace initiative promising normal ties between all Arab states and Israel if it withdrew to its 1967 borders, momentum seemed to be on the side of diplomacy. But since then, analysts say, all Arabs have seen is powerful states resorting to violence, from the U.S. in Iraq to Israel in Lebanon and Gaza. El Amrani says that while the Bush administration may have intended to isolate Iran and Syria, a case could be made that what it achieved within the region was the isolation of its own Arab allies.
Mr. AMRANI: There is this sentiment that countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which have been pushing since 2002 this Arab peace initiative that's been ignored so far by the Israelis, have failed. The diplomatic initiatives have failed, and they're not coming up with new ideas, whereas this resistance front at least is doing something.
KENYON: That is the atmosphere into which George Mitchell is stepping as he seeks to convince Israelis and Arabs that they can best defend both their people and their political interests by negotiating, not fighting. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.
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