Analysis: Obama gets tough with Israel

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WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama has gotten tough with Israel and chosen Cairo – where President Hosni Mubarak rules with a firm hand – for his much-awaited overture to the Islamic world in what appears to be a clear break from decades of U.S. po

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama has gotten tough with Israel and chosen Cairo – where President Hosni Mubarak rules with a firm hand – for his much-awaited overture to the Islamic world in what appears to be a clear break from decades of U.S. policy.

Many issues cloud American relations with the Muslim world, but none rankles like U.S. ties to Israel and massive support for the Jewish state in the heart of the Arab Middle East.

While the majority of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims live in Asia, the growing militancy among the followers of the Prophet Muhammad 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.

Bin Laden cited anger at U.S. support for Israel as the guiding philosophy of the terrorist organization that drew American forces into wars in Afghanistan, where he was believed to be hiding, and Iraq, which was flooded by al-Qaida fighters after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Those wars and U.S. policy toward Israel have produced a growing belief in the Muslim world that the United States is at war with Islam.

Given those realities, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs played down expectations of a quick turnaround in U.S.-Muslim relations after Obama’s Thursday speech.

“This is about resetting our relationship with the Muslim world. … We don’t expect everything to change after one speech,” he said.

In an interview broadcast Tuesday on French television, Obama warned against heightened expectations.

“I think it is very important to understand that one speech is not going to solve all the problems in the Middle East,” Obama said. “And so expectations need to be somehow modest.”

But Obama’s very public demand last month that Israel stop settlement activity on land the Palestinians want for a state was a clear prelude to the Cairo speech and a sign that he’s serious about regaining the United States’ role as an honest broker in that region, a policy switch that is bound to pay dividends across the Muslim world.

“There is no question that this is a break from the past,” said Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Miller, who was deeply involved in the U.S. peacemaking-efforts during the Clinton administration, said it is clear Obama will not be “coddling the Israelis.” At the same time, he said, the president does not appear to have developed his policy on Israel beyond demanding it stop building settlements.

“I don’t see that he has an ‘or else’ he is ready to use” against recalcitrant Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has flatly rejected the president’s demand on settlements.

In a pre-trip interview with National Public Radio, Obama was diplomatically blunt.

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