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On Arab TV, Obama lays out US approach to Mideast

He told Al Arabiya viewers: 'We are ready to initiate a new partnership.'

By Staff writer / January 27, 2009

President Obama (r.) spoke with Al Arabiya's Hisham Melhem (l.) in Washington Monday night, shortly after dispatching special envoy George Mitchell to the Middle East.

Al-Arabiya/AP

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After weeks of Arab grumbling about Barack Obama's silence on Gaza, the newly inaugurated American president has spoken. And his message is this: "We are ready to initiate a new partnership."

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But perhaps the biggest statement the president made was to choose the Dubai-based Al Arabiya network as the conduit for his first televised interview since taking office. It aired this morning. (You can view video highlights of the interview at the end of this post.)

New approach to US-Arab relations
In his remarks, he laid out a new approach for US relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds, one based on “mutual respect and mutual interest,” while taking care to assert that Israel would remain a strong ally.

Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what’s best for them. But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people.

Focus on the future
But beware, Israelis and Palestinians: He’s not going to have a lot of patience for nit-picking over past conflicts and past grievances. The focus has to be on the future.

... the bottom line in all these talks and conversations is, is a child in the Palestinian territories going to be better off, do they have a future for themselves, and is a child in Israel going to feel confident about his or her safety and security? … 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 we will have an opportunity to make real progress.

There’s more to it than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Prodded by the Al Arabiya reporter, he also affirmed that the US would approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a new paradigm: That it is only one part of a complex region.

I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think about what is happening with Syria, or Iran, or Lebanon, or Afghanistan and Pakistan. These things are interrelated.

Challenges to peace
But he emphasized again and again how significant the challenges to peace are in the region, and sought to lower expectations for quick results.

It is not going to be easy, and that’s why we have George Mitchell going there. This is somebody with extraordinary patience, as well as extraordinary skill, and that’s what’s going to be necessary.

Check out the full transcript of the interview on Al Arabiya.

George Mitchell's 'extraordinary patience'

We wrote last week about Mr. Mitchell’s record as the man who brokered peace in Northern Ireland after decades of hatred and violence.

What kept him going? Looking at his baby son, and thinking of how many children had been born in Northern Ireland that day – 61, he learned. And he wanted each one of those to live in peace.

Sounds as if he and Obama are on the same page.

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