Image: Obama's speech televised at Indonesian mall
Tatan Syuflana  /  AP
Indonesian Muslim women walk past by a TV screen showing President Barack Obama delivering his speech at a shopping mall in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Thursday.
updated 6/4/2009 5:15:25 PM ET 2009-06-04T21:15:25

President Barack Obama's speech to Muslims also had a huge and attentive Jewish audience, attuned to any suggestion that he might soften U.S. support for Israel or ease up with Iran at the expense of the Jewish state. His careful words illustrate the constraints posed by Obama's political obligations as he tries to reinvigorate America's honest-broker status in the Islamic world.

The president's address in Cairo was a long-promised dissertation on the painful history of the U.S. relationship with Muslims, the misunderstandings and missteps that fill an ocean of suspicion and ill will on both sides.

While Obama acknowledged that one speech could not "eradicate years of mistrust," he scored points with Muslims for opening a public dispute with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Jewish settlements on land Palestinians want for an independent state.

An Israeli government statement issued after Obama spoke ignored his calls for a settlement freeze and the creation of an independent Palestinian state — demands that the hawkish Netanyahu continues to reject.

"We share President Obama's hope that the American effort heralds the beginning of a new era that will bring about an end to the conflict," the statement said, noting that Israel's security must be guaranteed.

Among the long list of problems that cloud American relations with the Islamic world, none is more troubling in the Muslim streets and halls of power than U.S. ties to Israel and massive support for the Jewish state in the heart of the Arab Middle East.

On that, Obama gave no ground, declaring U.S. bonds with Israel "unbreakable."

Is Obama willing to gamble?
But as he presses Netanyahu for concessions, Obama has to be looking over his shoulder toward the powerful Israeli lobby in the United States and the many deeply conservative Christian organizations that back Israeli policy without question. Both can make big political trouble for an American president who tips too far from Israel.

Obama appears willing to gamble that pressure on Netanyahu will not produce damaging blowback, especially with more than three years left before the next U.S. presidential election.

And the president knows that he can make little headway with Muslims unless he wades deeply and early into attempts to broker an Israeli peace with the Palestinians, which probably depends on a deal with the larger Arab world.

His address acknowledged Palestinian grievances historical and modern, and the ripple effect they have among fellow Arabs. He used the word "occupation," as other U.S. presidents sometimes have, even though it rankles some of Israel's vocal supporters.

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But Obama began his lengthy discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict with a succinct and emotional defense of Israel's right to exist and the Jewish state's roots in the Holocaust. He said he plans to visit the Buchenwald death camp in Germany on Friday.

He struck a humble tone, one that is culturally important to a Muslim audience. But recalling the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, he said flatly, "America can never tolerate violence by extremists."

Speaking from the lectern at Cairo University in a speech also sponsored by al-Azhar, one of the oldest centers of Islamic learning, Obama issued an ambitious seven-point manifesto for better ties with the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.

While the majority of the world's Muslims live in Asia, the growing Islamic militancy took root largely in the Middle East. The dramatic strike against the United States on Sept. 11,2001 was the work of Arabs under the direction of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who was born in Saudi Arabia.

Recalling his speech in Ankara, Turkey, earlier this year, Obama said: "America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam."

'Too many tears'
And he restated American plans to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011 and declared U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan as soon as Washington could be sure it and neighboring Pakistan no longer were safe havens for bin Laden and his terrorist compatriots.

But Obama dwelled most heavily on an Arab-Israeli peace. He spoke 6,000 words in Thursday's speech, 1,000 about the Mideast conflict.

"Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed," he said.

"It is easy to point fingers," the president said. "But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security."

Easy to say. Harder is overcoming six decades of hatred and bloodshed, and the entrenched interests that eventually will face Obama at home.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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