Video: Obama calls for ‘new beginning’ with Muslims

updated 6/4/2009 10:43:28 AM ET 2009-06-04T14:43:28

Israel, the country most on edge about Barack Obama's outreach to Muslims, had decidedly mixed reactions Thursday to the U.S. president's speech in Cairo and his strong call for Israel to halt settlement expansion on territory the Palestinians claim for a future state.

A government official said the speech could have been worse for Israel, while a settler spokeswoman called Obama naive and out of touch with reality. A dovish lawmaker said the speech created an important opportunity for peace.

In his address aimed at healing rifts between the United States and the Muslim world, Obama devoted significant time to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He asked Muslims to accept Israel's right to exist as a nation, an event that came about after centuries of persecution and the Nazi genocide of six million Jews.

He also made an emotional plea for the right of Palestinians to live in dignity in an independent state of their own. He even used the term "Palestine," in a break from standard references to a future Palestinian state.

Government plays down any potential rifts
Israel's initial official reaction was to play down any potential rift with the Obama administration, probably to avoid exacerbating already palpable tensions between the liberal U.S. leader and Israel's new hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

"All in all, it's not bad. I don't think there's anything we disagree with here," said Danny Seaman, the director of Israel's Government Press Office.

"The state of Israel isn't against reconciliation," he added, but warned against any moves that could "be used by the extremists to endanger Israel and endanger the peace process."

Aliza Herbst, a 56-year-old resident of the West Bank settlement of Ofra, calmly watched Obama's speech on television and when he finished said "his naivety can be dangerous."

"You can have your speechwriters, find every good thing a Muslim has every done. But more modern history is that the Muslim world is at war with the Western world," she said, referring to the speech's myriad references to historical contributions by Muslims.

Michael Ben-Ari, an Israeli lawmaker from a far-right ultranationalist party, took the criticism of Obama a step further.

"His hatred for the people of Israel led him to deliver a most dangerous speech that exposed his pro-Islamic trends, designed to undermine the vision of the people of Israel returning to their homeland," he said.

Many Israelis had been anxious about Obama's speech, fearing the U.S. leader would use the stage to step up his recent criticism of Israel.

No surprises
But Seaman, the Israeli official, said the speech had no major surprises and that the current disagreements between Israel and the United States are "well-known."

Video: Full speech Netanyahu has refused to endorse a Palestinian state and said settlement construction will continue. Senior Israeli officials were meeting Thursday afternoon to formulate an official reaction to Obama's comments.

Yuli Tamir, a dovish lawmaker from the centrist Labor Party, was filled with praise for Obama and his speech.

"It's one of the most important speeches ever delivered, a key speech for changing the climate in the Middle East. Israel will make a big mistake if it ignores it," she said.

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