Tensions in J'lem ahead of Obama's speech

Officials seek clues on US policy; US president: Arabs should admit they fear Iran more than Israel.

Obama abdullah heads 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Obama abdullah heads 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Jerusalem will be listening intently along with the rest of the world to US President Barack Obama's speech Thursday in Cairo, hoping his outreach to the Muslim world does not come at Israel's expense. "Like everyone else we will be following the speech very closely," one senior official said Wednesday. While officials in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office did not see a draft of the speech, nor were they asked for their input, they were briefed on the overall content, the official said. While the Israeli-Arab conflict was expected to be touched upon during the address that will be delivered at Cairo University, it was not expected to be the focus. Rather, Obama has made clear, the focus would be America's relationship with the Muslim world. With the new administration's Middle East policy still being developed in Washington, however, Israeli officials said they would be listening carefully for clues as to where Obama was steering this policy. A day before his much-anticipated address, Obama went to Saudi Arabia where he said he was "seeking the counsel" of King Abdullah. "The United States and Saudi Arabia have a long history of friendship. We have a strategic relationship," Obama said as he visited the monarch's desert horse farm. The US president called Abdullah wise and gracious, adding: "I am confident that working together, the United States and Saudi Arabia can make progress on a whole host of issues of mutual interest." In turn, Abdullah expressed his "best wishes to the friendly American people, who are represented by a distinguished man who deserves to be in this position." One of the issues the two men were expected to address was gestures that the Arab world could make to Israel at the beginning of the diplomatic process to gain Israeli confidence. Israeli officials, however, were very skeptical that the Saudi monarch would make any gesture at this time, and said that he probably was waiting for Israel to make the first move. Obama, in an interview with The New York Times before leaving Washington, said that a key part of his message during the trip would be, "Stop saying one thing behind closed doors and saying something else publicly." "There are a lot of Arab countries more concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon than the 'threat' from Israel, but won't admit it," he said. He then added that there were a lot of Israelis "who recognize that their current path is unsustainable, and they need to make some tough choices on settlements to achieve a two-state solution - that is in their long-term interest - but not enough folks are willing to recognize that publicly." And there were a lot of Palestinians, Obama said, who "recognize that the constant incitement and negative rhetoric with respect to Israel" has not gained them anything, and that they would have been better off "had they taken a more constructive approach and sought the moral high ground." Upon his arrival in Riyadh, the Saudi king greeted Obama at the city's main airport, and there was a ceremony where each country's national anthem was played, and the Saudi national guard greeted the US president with a 21-gun salute. Obama and Abdullah then sat together in gilded chairs, sipped cardamom-flavored Arabic coffee and chatted briefly in public before retreating to hold private talks on a range of issues. Around the same time Air Force One touched down in the country, the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera Television broadcast a new audio tape from Osama bin Laden in which he threatened Americans and said Obama inflamed hatred toward the US by ordering Pakistan to crack down on Islamist gunmen in Swat Valley and to block Islamic law there. With Abdullah alongside him, Obama told reporters: "I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek his majesty's counsel and to discuss with him many of the issues that we confront here in the Middle East." In a pre-trip interview with the BBC, Obama set the tone for his swing through the Middle East, saying: "What we want to do is open a dialogue." "You know, there are misapprehensions about the West, on the part of the Muslim world. And, obviously, there are some big misapprehensions about the Muslim world when it comes to those of us in the West," he said. Aides cautioned that Obama was not out to break new policy ground in his Cairo speech, which follows visits to Turkey and Iraq in April and a series of outreach efforts including a Persian New Year video and a student town hall in Istanbul. And they said the president was not expecting quick results, even though the speech would be distributed as widely as possible. "We don't expect that everything will change after one speech," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday. "I think it will take a sustained effort and that's what the president is in for." Officials said Obama also wouldn't flinch from difficult topics, whether it was the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the goal of a Palestinian state or democracy and human rights. Obama has been criticized for setting the address in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak has jailed dissidents and clung to power for nearly three decades. In Riyadh, the president was talking to Abdullah about a host of thorny problems, from Arab-Israeli diplomatic efforts to Iran's nuclear program. The Saudis have voiced growing concern in private that an Iranian bomb could unleash a nuclear arms race in the region. The surge in oil prices also was on the agenda. Crude topped $68 a barrel this week, sparking fears that a fresh jump in energy costs could snuff out early sparks of a recovery from a deep global slump. Obama likely will be looking for help from Saudi Arabia on what to do with some 100 Yemeni detainees locked up in the Guantanamo Bay prison. Discussions over where to send the detainees have complicated Obama's plan to close the prison. The US has been hesitant to send them home because of Yemen's history of either releasing extremists or allowing them to escape from prison. Instead, the Obama administration has been negotiating with Saudi Arabia and Yemen for months to send them to Saudi terrorist rehabilitation centers. The president was to stay overnight at the king's farm outside Riyadh. Abdullah, who hosted then-president George W. Bush at the ranch in January of last year, keeps some 260 Arabian horses on its sprawling grounds in air-conditioned comfort. In any effort to court Muslims, the Saudis are important not just for their oil wealth, but by virtue of the authority they wield at the center of Arab history and culture. Obama's meeting with the 84-year-old Abdullah was his second in three months. The two saw each other at the G-20 summit in London, a meeting both sides called friendly and productive. Perhaps a bit too friendly: Critics accused Obama of bowing to the Saudi monarch during a photo-op. The White House maintained he was merely bending to shake hands with a shorter man. Just a few hours before he took off for the region, Obama met briefly in Washington with visiting Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Despite the current tension over the settlement construction issue, Barak said there was wide Israeli willingness to work together with the Americans. Barak, speaking to Israeli reporters Wednesday night in Washington, said he asked the White House to "water down its remarks, briefings and leaks, so that we can talk about fundamental issues." The Americans, for their part, reportedly had a similar request: that Israeli official think twice before making pronouncements. In recent days Israeli officials have accused the US of abrogating oral agreements reached with Israel regarding the settlements, and going back on commitments given to Israel by George W. Bush. While admitting that "there were differences of opinion between Israel and the US administration," Barak reiterated that Israel "welcomes Obama's initiative for regional peace." "The US administration is looking for the correct way to garner Israeli support for revitalizing the peace process," continued Barak, stressing that he was "more optimistic" following his talks on Tuesday with Obama and US National Security Adviser James Jones, than he was before the meetings, when he was reading what was reported in the newspapers and broadcast on the television news.