CAIRO — 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.
"We must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. 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 had cleared heavy security to enter the main auditorium.
The reaction from typically antagonistic quarters was largely respectful. Some Islamic and Arab figures spoke of the change they are seeing under Obama.
They are not yet convinced that it's change they can believe in.
"There is a change between the language of President Obama and previous speeches made by George Bush," said Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the Palestinian militant group Hamas. He added that Obama did not specifically note the suffering in Gaza following the three-week Israeli incursion earlier this year.
"So all we can say is that there is a difference in the statements, and the statements of today did not include a mechanism that can translate his wishes and views into actions," said Barhoum, whose group the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
The Israeli government issued a statement saying it too hoped for a new era. But it skirted any reference to Obama's calls for a settlement freeze in the West Bank and the creation of an independent Palestinian state, demands that Israel's hawkish prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, continues to reject.
From its opening phrases, the speech was laden with respectful gestures to Muslims.
Obama said it was part of his responsibilities as president "to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear."
He quoted the Quran: "Be conscious of God and always speak the truth," to underscore his call for a new relationship based on mutual interest and respect.
He referred to Iran by its full name, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and said Islamic countries had been victimized by colonialism as well as the Cold-War-era struggle between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
Obama also demanded that Iran bow to international demands to halt its nuclear weapons program and bid Muslim countries help in eradicating the threat of fundamentalist violence across the globe.
The battle against terrorists will continue, in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, Obama said, despite the animosity the operations have helped create toward the U.S. among Muslims. "America's commitment will not weaken," he said.
He asked Muslims to join the fight.
"The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer," Obama said.