With Mitchell off to Mideast, Obama talks to Arab TV

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 26, 2009 

WASHINGTON — With the Middle East still roiling over Israel's three-week intervention in Gaza, President Barack Obama dispatched his new Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, to the region on Monday with a call for "genuine progress," and "not just photo ops."

The move came just hours before Obama granted his first full TV interview since being sworn in -- to Arabic satellite TV channel al Arabiya, whose Dubai-based signal reached 23 million viewers in the Middle East.

In the interview, Obama reaffirmed American support for Israel. But he also spoke of a "new partnership" with the Arab world "based on mutual respect and mutual interest."

He also made it clear that he was in a unique position as an American leader in dealing with the Muslim world. "I have Muslim members of my family," he said. "I have lived in Muslim countries."

The interview was the second time since becoming president that Obama has made a point to reach out to the Arab world. Last week, his first call to a foreign leader went to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Before the interview, Obama emphasized that Mitchell was "fully empowered" to speak for the White House, a departure from the diplomacy of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and a calculated signal of serious intent to Israeli and Arab leaders.

In office less than a week, Obama has moved more rapidly than any predecessor to launch a vigorous diplomatic effort into the Arab-Israeli minefield. It was Obama's second public appearance with former Sen. Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the last five days.

What's not yet known is how Obama will deal with the setbacks his efforts will inevitably encounter. The landscape for diplomacy is bleak, with an Israeli public deeply skeptical of peace efforts and about to vote in national elections, and Palestinians split between the moderate Palestinian Authority and the radical Islamic group Hamas.

Appearing before the cameras in the Cabinet Room at the White House, Obama acknowledged that his envoy has "a very tough job."

Still, he said, Mitchell will "engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress. And when I say progress, not just photo-ops, but progress that is concretely felt by people on the ground."

"Understand that Senator Mitchell is going to be fully empowered by me and fully empowered by Secretary Clinton. So when he speaks, he will be speaking for us," the president added.

State Department officials said Mitchell's mission has three goals.

He will listen to regional leaders' views on an eventual Israeli-Palestinian settlement. But negotiations begun by former President George W. Bush are in limbo until Israeli elections two weeks from now, and polls show former prime minster Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes compromise, as the frontrunner.

More immediately, Mitchell will try to stabilize an unofficial cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip following a month of fighting that left hundreds of Palestinians dead and billions of dollars in damage.

Obama's broader peace initiative "is not going to take off" unless the cease-fire can be strengethened, said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Just before leaving office, the Bush administration signed an agreement with Israel committing the United States to helping stop weapons from being smuggled to Hamas and other radical groups in Gaza. The United States has also pledged training and technical assistance to Egypt to help it detect tunnels on its Gaza border used for smuggling.

Mitchell will not meet representatives of Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist group, said State Department spokesman Robert Wood. Nor, at least on this trip, will he travel to Syria, Wood said.

Mitchell's itinerary includes Israel, the West Bank. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and possibly Turkey but has no plans to visit Gaza itself. He will also confer with U.S. allies in Europe.

The third aspect of Mitchell's trip is to ensure that humanitarian aid is delivered swiftly to Gaza's needy citizens. Since taking office, Obama and Clinton have gone out of their way to sympathize with the Palestinians' plight.

Even if Obama's foray into peacemaking is no more successful than previous presidents', the new president has set a different tone with the Arab world. Bush waited seven years before trying to broker talks, rarely got involved personally and often sent his special envoys into the region without explicitly empowering them to speak for him.

Obama has also raised hopes-perhaps to dangerous levels.

"There is a lot of (political) capital and a lot of expectations," Egypt's ambassador to Washington, Sameh Shoukry, said Friday. "We recognized a long time ago ... this conflict cannot be solved without U.S. leadership." MORE FROM MCCLATCHY: Mosques destroyed by Israeli strikes, Gazans pray outdoors Obama names new U.S. envoys to tackle old conflicts

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