LONDON (AFP) – President Barack Obama voiced confidence that the United States can help get “serious negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinians back on track, in an interview with the BBC.
Speaking before his maiden trip to the region this week including a keynote address in Egypt, he added that he hoped for progress in direct talks with Iran by the end of this year.
On Middle East peace talks, he said the United States believes it is “going to be able to get serious negotiations back on track” between Israel and the Palestinians, he told the British broadcaster.
“Not only is it in the interest of the Palestinian people to have a state, it’s in the interest of the Israeli people to stabilise the situation there,” he added.
Obama’s comments come as he prepares to embark late Tuesday on a visit to the Middle East, where he is scheduled on Thursday to make a high-profile speech at a university in the Egyptian capital Cairo.
On Iran, the US president told the BBC that he hopes for progress in contacts with the Islamic republic this year.
“Although I don’t want to put artificial timetables on that process, we do want to make sure that, by the end of this year, we’ve actually seen a serious process move forward,” he said.
In other comments ahead of a visit first to Saudi Arabia and Egypt and then Europe, Obama said the United States must lead by example — which firstly meant closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp on Cuba.
But he also warned that Washington could not force other countries to accept its values.
“The danger I think is when the United States or any country thinks that we can simply impose these values on another country with a different history and a different culture,” the president told the broadcaster.
But he stressed: “Democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion — those are not simply principles of the West to be hoisted on these countries, but rather what I believe to be universal principles that they can embrace and affirm as part of their national identity.”
Also on Tuesday, an Israeli minister said the new US administration should respect understandings struck by its predecessor on settlements, after Obama vowed a more “honest” tone with the Jewish state.
“While the American president demands a freeze of (settlement) construction, including kindergartens, he is avoiding understandings reached with Israel with president (George W.) Bush,” Environment Minister Gilad Erdan told army radio.
Erdan, an MP with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, was referring to a 2004 letter from Bush to then prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Bush said that given the existence of major Israeli settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank, it was “unrealistic” to expect Israel to fully withdraw from the territory it captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.
Obama’s administration has taken a harsher tone with Israel, demanding that it freeze all settlement activity, including so-called “natural growth” construction to accommodate population increases.
Netanyahu, who leads a largely right-wing government that supports the settlement enterprise, has rejected freezing all construction, an issue that is a key obstacle in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.