CAIRO, Egypt — Seeking "a new beginning" with an estimated 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, President Barack Obama on Thursday spoke more bluntly than any U.S. president before him about the chasms dividing the Middle East and the political double talk behind them.
In a 55-minute address from Cairo University, Obama called Israel's settlements in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank illegitimate and said they must stop. He chastised Arabs for crude caricatures of America and conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He also acknowledged that the United States sometimes "acted contrary to our ideals" in its initial response to 9-11.
Asserting that many Muslims privately recognize that Israel won't go away and that many Israelis acknowledge the need for a Palestinian state, he called for peace. "It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true," he said.
Obama's speech, beamed to homes and coffeehouses from Morocco to Malaysia, was the capstone of his efforts since he took office to reach out to the Muslim world, and it was clearly meant to close a traumatic era in U.S.-Muslim relations.
"We must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors," he said. "I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," he told more than 3,000 invited guests who'd cleared heavy security to enter the main auditorium. In their midst were many Egyptian dissidents, as well as the son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak himself didn't attend, but Obama met with him earlier in the day.
The speech also cemented a significant shift in U.S. Middle East policy, away from former President George W. Bush's unstinting advocacy for Israel toward a more balanced approach that casts Washington as mediator between Arabs and Jews.
To be sure, Obama reaffirmed the United States' "unbreakable" bonds with Israel, and with his visit Friday to the former Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany in mind, said that to deny the Holocaust was "baseless, ignorant and hateful." The latter comment was partly a reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who's in the midst of a hotly contested re-election campaign.
In virtually the next breath, however, Obama spoke of Palestinians' suffering under the "daily humiliations" of occupation and in hopeless refugee camps through the Arab world.
"Just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's," he declared.
Many Muslims and Palestinians, and groups that represented liberal to moderate Jews, received the speech optimistically.
"We had high expectations, and I believe he met our expectations in terms of the vision and how he sees the world," Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said. "The balanced approach is the best approach, and the failure of policy is always linked with a biased approach. Now we see a balanced one."
Israeli officials reacted cautiously, deflecting Obama's position on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and focusing instead on portions of the speech more palatable to Israel.
"We welcome the president's commitment to the state of Israel's security and his clear call to accept and integrate her into the region," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in Washington.
Obama's equating of Israeli and Palestinian suffering brought some rebukes back in Washington.
"To propose a moral equivalency to the history of Palestinian and Israeli pursuits is utterly unjustifiable," said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
Now that Obama has fulfilled his campaign promise to give a speech in a major Muslim capital, albeit a few weeks beyond the 100-day timetable he'd pledged, speculation inevitably will turn to whether his high-sounding rhetoric will prompt change.
"If Barack Obama cannot elicit a positive response from Muslim audiences, I don't know what American president can," said veteran analyst David Makovsky, co-author of the forthcoming book "Myths, Illusions and Peace."
For U.S. presidents over six decades, the Middle East often has been maddeningly impervious to change. Bush's attempts to remold the region through wars and democratization resulted in a backlash that handed more power to radical groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Egypt’s own Muslim Brotherhood.
In Cairo, some liked Obama's message but were skeptical of its impact. Menna El Massry, 19, a law student who was wearing a rainbow head scarf, said that "a lot of people expect Obama to be the savior," but she thought that any change would come slowly.
"Will there be a state of Palestine in Obama’s administration? I doubt it," she said. "Not because I don’t think there should be a state — I do — but because I don’t think the world is ready for that yet."
Arab leaders, wary of Iran's growing power and their own young, disgruntled populations, seem leery of dramatic moves toward peace with Israel or political openings at home.
Israel is governed by a new, right-wing coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who hasn't yet said that he's ready to accept the "two-state" solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Obama seeks.
On settlements, Israel is offering substantially less than the complete freeze on construction that the White House wants.
"The government of Israel has reiterated to the United States its commitment not to build new settlements, to dismantle all illegal outposts and to fulfill its commitments" under the 2003 "road map" for peace, a senior Israeli official said. However, the official defended the so-called "natural growth" of populations in existing settlements. He requested anonymity to speak more frankly.
Obama trod gently into two areas that would have been the centerpiece of any similar speech by Bush: Iran's suspected quest for a nuclear weapon and the need for more democracy in the Muslim world. Obama devoted only a few paragraphs to each.
He acknowledged U.S. errors and missteps. He called the Iraq war "a war of choice," reiterated his order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and recalled the U.S. role in overthrowing Iran's democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953.
Obama's criticisms weren't focused solely on Israel and the West, however.
He also spoke in detail about the Holocaust, in language that Arabs and Muslims typically don't hear in speeches aimed at gaining their support. He implored Muslims to see the minority of violent extremists within their ranks as an enemy to themselves as well as the West.
"The Holy Quran teaches that whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind, and whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind," Obama said in one of his biggest applause lines.
He acknowledged support for Hamas among Palestinians, but said that "Palestinians must abandon violence," recalling how black Americans succeeded through the nonviolent civil rights movement.
The Cairo University audience, many listening via headset translation, interrupted more than 30 times to applaud. People cheered when Obama used his own full name, complete with middle name Hussein, and acknowledged his familial connection to Islam.
However, some young Egyptians watching from a balcony in the auditorium rolled their eyes when Obama flubbed the word for head scarf, instead saying "hajib" instead of "hijab."
Egyptian security forces closed off traffic and lined the roads to secure Obama's passage as he zipped from a meeting with Mubarak to a mosque visit, then to the speech and on to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx.
(Strobel reported from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Middle East news at McClatchy's Checkpoint Jerusalem
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy’s Planet Washington