Arab World Shapes White House Week

Originally published on May 24, 2011 5:09 pm
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

President Obama began to dig into the conflicts and turmoil of the Middle East this week, giving a speech about the Arab Spring uprisings and the questions they raise for hope and stability in the region.

NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro was in the Middle East until just a few days ago. He returned to Washington, D.C. in time for the president's speech and has this roundup of the week's events.

ARI SHAPIRO: The president's Mideast focus began on Tuesday. Jordan's King Abdullah visited the White House and the leaders discussed the revolutions in the Arab world.

(Soundbite of speech)

President BARACK OBAMA: And we both agreed that it's critical that not only does political reform proceed but economic reform accompanies those changes there.

SHAPIRO: That talk of economic reform foreshadowed Mr. Obama's major speech on Thursday. At the State Department, he promised billions in loans and debt forgiveness to help countries like Egypt transform to modern economies.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. OBAMA: The goal must be a model in which protectionism gives way to openness. The reigns of commerce pass from the few to the many, and the economy generates jobs for the young.

SHAPIRO: The president must walk a fine line proposing that kind of assistance. Here at home, some Americans asked why their tax dollars should be spent on overseas jobs when so many people are still looking for work in the U.S. Overseas, the concerns are different.

In Egypt's eastern desert on Tuesday, a tour guide named Esam described being in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the revolution. He told me that when foreigners came to join the crowd, the Egyptian protestors would say thank you for your encouragement, now go away. This is our revolution, not the outsiders'.

President Obama recognized that Egyptian sense of ownership as he pledged American support on Thursday.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. OBAMA: It's not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo; it was the people themselves who launched these movements. And it's the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome.

SHAPIRO: That speech also touched on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On the streets of Israel Wednesday, nearly everyone I spoke with knew that the U.S. president was going to deliver a major address on the subject, but they doubted it would do any good.

In the town of Ashdod, a Palestinian construction worker named Suleiman Bassam was helping to build a mansion with an ocean view. He told me he hopes President Obama can create peace, but he doesn't believe it will happen.

Mr. SULEIMAN BASSAM (Construction Worker): At this moment, he can't do nothing.

SHAPIRO: Why not?

Mr. BASSAM: He want to try to make but he can't make anything now.

SHAPIRO: Do you think the revolutions in Syria and Egypt and elsewhere make it easier to create peace between the...

Mr. BASSAM: No, it make it hard. I am a - love Obama. I love his government, but it's very hard to make peace now.

SHAPIRO: The Israelis I spoke with were no more optimistic.

Mr. ISRAEL MIRIASHVILI (Taxi Driver): (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: Come, Mr. Obama, said taxi driver Israel Miriashvili. Come, let's do one thing. Let's do an exchange. You come to Israel and I'll go to the United States. Let's see how you do. Let's see how you live with the Palestinians, he said.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. OBAMA: The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on and on and on and sees nothing but stalemate.

SHAPIRO: President Obama argued that the imperative to create peace now is stronger than ever. On Thursday, he said negotiators should use Israel's 1967 borders with certain territorial swaps as the starting point. On Friday at the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected that position.

(Soundbite of speech)

Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Israel): While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow, the president will speak to another audience that considers itself very much part of this fight. He delivers a speech to the pro-Israel lobbying group APAC, then he flies to Europe where public sentiment on this issue leans more towards the Palestinians. It's one more quick turnaround that illustrates just how little common ground there is to pivot on.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.