WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama gave his first formal television interview as president to an Arabic cable TV network, saying that when it comes to Middle East matters "all too often the United States starts by dictating."
Obama taped the interview with the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya network Monday as his envoy to the Middle East, former Sen. George J. Mitchell, set out for an eight-day trip to the region and elsewhere. The interview complemented the new administration's first efforts to reach out to Arab leaders in the region, who have been wary at best of U.S. efforts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Noting that he has lived in Muslim countries and has Muslim family members, Obama said: "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy."
He urged Muslims to judge him by his actions, pointing to the decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center , where detainees in the U.S. war on terror are held. He said he also would begin to implement his pledge to draw down troops in Iraq.
Obama reiterated that America was prepared to extend a hand of peace to Iran if it "unclenched its fist."
"It is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what's happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan," he added.
'Potential avenues for progress'
On Iran, Obama said he believed it was important to use all the tools of U.S. power with Tehran, including diplomacy.
"Iran has acted in ways that's not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past — none of these things have been helpful, " Obama said.
"It is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but (also) where there are potential avenues for progress.
"If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."
Obama said he felt it important to "get engaged right away" in the Mideast and had directed Mitchell to talk to "all the major parties involved." His administration would craft an approach after that, he said in the interview.
"What I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating," Obama told the interviewer.
The president reiterated the U.S. commitment to Israel as an ally, and to its right to defend itself. But he suggested that Israel has hard choices to make and that his administration would press harder for it to do so.
"We cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what's best for them. They're going to have to make some decisions. But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people," he said.
Obama added: "Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount. But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side."
Obama stopped short of giving a timetable, but he said he is certain progress can be made.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Monday he was "optimistic" because Obama had assured him that he intended to maintain Washington's "traditional commitment" to Israel.
Obama praised Saudi King Abdullah for the Saudi-sponsored peace initiative, which offers Arab peace to Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from Arab land occupied since 1967 and a just solution for Palestinian refugees.
"I might not agree with every aspect of the proposal, but it took great courage to put forward something that is as significant as that," Obama said. "I think that there are ideas across the region of how we might pursue peace."
Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal warned Obama in an article published this month that U.S.-Saudi ties were at risk unless Washington changed tack on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
'The devil is in the detail'
But while many Arabs have high hopes that Obama will change U.S. policies, analysts said he had yet to spell out how he would achieve a two-state solution and manage the Iraq withdrawal.
"We have to lower our expectations that he has a magic wand to solve all our problems," said analyst Mustafa Alani.
"The Arab attitude is basically optimistic that Obama will turn a new page and his inaugural speech reached out to Muslims but the devil is in the detail."
Asked about the sharp verbal attacks on him by al-Qaida leaders behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Obama said it showed "that their ideas are bankrupt".
"In my inauguration speech, I spoke about: You will be judged on what you've built, not what you've destroyed. And what they've been doing is destroying things," he said. "I think the Muslim world has recognized that that path is leading no place, except more death and destruction."
Msnbc.com staff, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.