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Obama hopeful on Mid-East peace

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President Obama looks ahead to his trip to the Middle East

US President Barack Obama has told the BBC he believes his country can help to get serious Middle East peace negotiations back on track.

Mr Obama's first interview with a UK broadcaster comes on the eve of a trip to the Middle East and Europe.

On Iran, he said he hoped to see progress by the end of the year, through "tough, direct diplomacy".

But he said, rather than imposing its values on other countries, the US should act as a role model.

Speaking to BBC North America Editor Justin Webb, Mr Obama said he believed the US was "going to be able to get serious negotiations back on track" between Israel and the Palestinians.

Diplomacy is always a matter of a long hard slog. It's never a matter of quick results
Barack Obama

"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 said.

"And it's in the interest of the United States that we've got two states living side by side in peace and security."

Asked about Israel's rejection of his call for a halt to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the president urged patience, saying it was early in the conversation.

"Diplomacy is always a matter of a long hard slog. It's never a matter of quick results," he said.

However, Mr Obama said he had not needed convincing by Israel of the need to address Iran's programme of nuclear development.

Justin Webb

This is not an apology for the actions of the Bush White House - that the president told me flatly

"What I have said is that it is in the world's interests for Iran to set aside ambitions for a nuclear weapon," he said, and the best way for that to be accomplished was "through tough direct diplomacy".

"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".

Nuanced message

Mr Obama is due to arrive in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday on the first stage of his tour of the Middle East and Europe.

He will travel to Egypt on 4 June, where he is set to give a key speech on US ties with the region, before carrying on to Europe to attend D-Day commemoration events.

The president has faced criticism over his decision to give a speech in Cairo, with human rights groups pointing to Egypt's patchy reputation for political freedom.

But he said while there were "obviously" human rights issues to address in some Middle Eastern countries, the job of the US was not to lecture but to encourage what he said were "universal principles" that those countries could "embrace and affirm as part of their national identity".

"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," he said.

HAVE YOUR SAY
Mr Obama can win hearts and minds of Muslims around the world, if he changes his policy towards Israel
Manzoor Qureshi, Milwaukee, USA

Instead, the president said that the most important thing for the US was to "serve as a role model".

"Part of what we want to affirm to the world is that these are values that are important even when it's hard, maybe especially when it's hard and not just when it's easy."

"That's why, for example, closing Guantanamo from my perspective as difficult as it is, is important."

Mr Obama is facing domestic resistance to his plans to close the Guantanamo detention camp, with critics citing concerns over what would happen to inmates still considered to pose a threat to the US.

Justin Webb says the president chose to speak to the BBC now because his team wants to reach the parts of the world the BBC reaches, with a message that is nuanced and thoughtful.

But Mr Obama is not apologising for the actions of the Bush White House, our correspondent adds.

Instead, the president said he wanted to "open a dialogue" between the West and the Muslim world to overcome what he said were "misapprehensions" on both sides.

He stressed there were no "silver bullets" to overcome problems but instead some "very real policy issues that have to be worked through".

"Ultimately, it's going to be action and not words that determine the progress from here on out."



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