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Israelis, Palestinians React To Obama Speech


Now, reaction to the president's speech from Israelis and Palestinians. Relations between Israel and Washington have been tense recently, due to differences on the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Israel wants to continue expanding them. President Obama wants settlement activity stopped.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has our story.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Israel there was deep worry in advance of the President's speech today. In editorials, the main newspapers, all bemoaned the strained relations between Washington and Israel. Much was made of a report that the Israeli government, uncharacteristically, was not given an advance copy of the speech. In a single night, one editorial said, Israel has gone from being America's pampered only child to a shunned stepchild. After the speech, though…

Professor REUVEN HAZAN (Political Analyst, Hebrew University): A gasp of relief was heard from Jerusalem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Israeli analyst Reuven Hazan.

Prof. HAZAN: The fears in Israel did not materialize. Out of a 55-minute speech, he devoted five minutes to us. In other words, this was not about Israel, and it didn't really hurt Israel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, he says, President Obama has promised to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Israel's actions will be coming under increasing scrutiny.

Prof. HAZAN: The United States seems to be talking much more frankly with Israel now. And Israel has to understand that we don't have someone in Washington who's willing to be our shield. To put it metaphorically, if Obama turned his face towards the Muslim world today, he didn't necessarily give Israel the cold shoulder. It depends on what we make of it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What Israel's government is making of today's speech remains to be seen. The usually slick government press office took three hours to come out with a brief statement. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev took no questions.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Israeli Government): Israel shares President Obama's hope that the American efforts will indeed bring about a new era, the end of the conflict, Arab recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and peace and security for all in the Middle East. Israel is committed to this process, and we will make every effort to help this process succeed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: While official Israeli reaction was muted, settler groups were outraged by President Obama's renewed call for a complete halt in settlement construction. Shaul Goldstein is the mayor of the settlement Gush Etzion. He says America should not dictate to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. SHAUL GOLDSTEIN (Mayor, Gush Etzion): I know the power of the Americans. I know the pressure they can make if they want. I'm very worried, but not myself only. I think that most Israeli citizens in Israel today are fighting or are begging Netanyahu to fight for our legitimate independence. I don't think United States has the right to tell us what to do exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In today's speech, President Obama also addressed the militant group Hamas, which is in control of the Gaza strip, telling its leaders they should recognize the state of Israel and cease violent acts. Hamas gave a guarded response to Mr. Obama's speech. In a written statement, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum cautiously welcomed what he termed America's change in tone, but he said the speech lacked a concrete plan of action to stop, quote, "Israeli aggression and to support Palestinian rights." The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, was more positive in his reaction to Obama's speech, saying it was an important step.

(Soundbite of television)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a café in East Jerusalem, Palestinians watched the speech dubbed into Arabic on flat screen TVs mounted on the wall. Reaction here, too, was divided. Fuyat Kari(ph) is the headmaster of a nearby school.

Mr. FUYAT KARI: (Through Translator) What Obama has said is beautiful prose. But we're not able to see yet any of its effects here on the ground. All these leaders over the years have said beautiful words, but they have no effect on the ground. We'll have to wait and see.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But 22-year-old Amira Javel(ph) says whatever President Obama achieves in the future, he already made an important contribution today.

Ms. AMIRA JAVEL: (Through Translator) Before Obama, Islam was stereotyped as terrorism. Obama's stance has surprised the Islamic world positively, and I think his speech will change the perception people have about us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says, President Obama is a man of courage, and I hope the world listens to him.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.