Obama to Mideast: We're Listening

By DANIEL MACHT
|  Tuesday, Jan 27, 2009  |  Updated 5:06 AM EDT
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Team Obama

AP

President Barack Obama, flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, and Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who is heading to the region on a peace mission.

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President Barack Obama launched a Mideast peace mission this week.

Monday he granted  the first formal interview of his presidency to an Arab television network, an unprecedented move for a U.S.President. He also gave a new directive to Sen.George Mitchell  his Mideas peace envoy and  perhaps the only man in the country with a successful peace accord under his belt.

"What I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating," Obama said.

The moves signal a sea change from the way business has been done in the previous eight years. 

During the interview with Al-Arabiya television Monday evening, Obama said he felt it important to "get engaged right away" in the Mideast. 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," Obama said.

State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said Mitchell will be in "listening mode" and will report back to the president and to Clinton with advice on how to attempt to get the peace process back on track.

Wood said the Mitchell talks will be wide-ranging, could be expanded to include other countries and likely will touch on Iran, whose support for Hamas and Hezbollah is key to the Mideast conflict.

His first stop Tuesday is to be Egypt, followed by visits to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. His schedule includes stops in Paris and London early next week on his way back to Washington.

Mitchell served in the Senate as a Democrat from Maine from 1980 to 1995, the final six years as majority leader. In 2000-01, Mitchell headed a fact-finding committee on Mideast violence that called for commitments by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to immediately and unconditionally end their fighting. It urged a cooling-off period and other steps toward peace, but it did not lead to lasting results.

The April 2001 Mitchell report urged Israel to freeze settlements in the West Bank and called on the Palestinians to prevent gunmen in Palestinian-populated areas from firing on Israeli towns and cities. The settlements, as well as Israeli concern over rocket and other attacks on its soil, remain sticking points today.

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