Barack Obama gave his first formal television interview as US President to an Arabic cable TV network, telling Al-Arabiya that when it comes to Middle East matters “all too often the United States starts by dictating”.
Mr Obama taped the interview with the Dubai-based network as his envoy to the Middle East, former Senator 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 US efforts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Mr Obama said he felt it important to “get engaged right away” in the Mideast and had directed Mr 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,” Mr Obama told the interviewer.
The president reiterated the US 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 realise that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people,” he said.
Mr Obama added: “There are Israelis who recognise 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.”
Mr Obama stopped short of giving a timetable, but he said he is certain progress can be made.