Obama message to Muslims blurs, year after Cairo speech

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CAIRO: A year after a landmark Cairo address to the Muslim world, President Barack Obama’s conciliatory message has been blurred by the perception that US support for Israel remains unchanged, analysts say.

Despite his administration’s high profile confrontation with Israel over Jewish settlement construction, Obama appears unwilling, or unable, to shake off perceptions of solid US support for Israel, they say.

This has been highlighted by the US response to Israel’s deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla.

Its cautious reaction has tipped the balance in favor of regional skeptics who believe Obama cannot dramatically change unpopular US policies in the region, said an Egyptian analyst.

"There have been two points of view, one that Obama was sincere and will do what he pledged in his Cairo speech and the other that he is superficial," said Imad Gad, an analyst with the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

"His administration’s response to the flotilla tipped the balance in favor of the view that his position was rhetorical," he said.

Antoine Basbous, head of the Paris-based Observatory of the Arab Countries, said it made Washington look like "Israel’s international godfather," despite the Obama administration’s moves to ease tensions with Muslim countries.

These include the decision to drop the term "war on terror" and Washington’s new-found support for a nuclear non-proliferation accord that incorporates undeclared nuclear power Israel, said Basbous.

The United States, however, worked to dilute a UN Security Council statement on the flotilla raid, in contrast to European governments which summoned Israeli ambassadors over the incident.

His administration has been unable to persuade Israel to freeze all settlement construction and its efforts to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians has so far led only to precarious indirect talks.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday, ahead of a visit to Washington next week, called on Obama to make "bold decisions" on Middle East peace.

Despite putting radicals on the defensive with his conciliatory June 4, 2009 address to the Muslim world, the absence of progress in the peace process has taken a toll, said Beirut-based analyst Paul Salem.

"Barack Hussein Obama, with his name and speech, on the whole calmed tensions," said Salem of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The speech, in which Obama professed respect for Islam and sympathy for Palestinians under Israeli occupation, put hardliners such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a corner, Salem said.

But the floundering Middle East peace process threatens the reserve of goodwill, he said. "The incapability, or lack of will, to put pressure on Israel is a source of real disappointment in the Arab world."

Samir Awad, an international relations professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, agreed. "There is a change in American declarations but this difference has not translated into crucial differences on the ground," he said.

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