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Former UN Envoy Discusses Middle East's Role In Muslim World

U.S. President Barack Obama will need to make Muslims understand that the United States is not at war with Islam, de Soto says.
Alvaro de Soto, a former Peruvian diplomat and former UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, speaks to RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique about some of the most critical issues in the region ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Cairo.

RFE/RL: Do you think that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is of central importance to U.S.-Muslim relations and peace in the Muslim world?

Alvaro de Soto:
The short answer is "yes." The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has an extraordinary power to concentrate in the minds of Muslims worldwide the sense that the West is somehow not comprehending, and acting only with force and in a biased way against Arabs. Now this is a question of perception, true or not.

I also believe that this is related to the fact that at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the question of Jerusalem. Muslims are deeply aware of the importance of Jerusalem and they are very sensitive about that particular issue."

There is a further factor and it is that, in the world of today, it has become extremely difficult if not impossible to separate one Arab-Israeli issue from another. Whereas it was possible for Egypt [to] carry out a separate peace with Israel and for Jordon to follow suit, some years later. The remaining Arab-Israeli conflict between Syria and Israel, between the Palestinians and Israel, and even between Lebanon and Israel are so closely interlinked between them that such separate peace has become very difficult to conceive.

RFE/RL: Some experts suggest that there is a crisis within Islam or among the world's various Muslim populations. Do you agree, and is this something that U.S. President Barack Obama should address in his speech in Egypt?

De Soto:
My sense is that Mr. Obama has the right mind-set; that he understands because of his own background, in a way that perhaps few Americans can, dimensions of the problem that exists. And I believe that he is a very thoughtful man and I am sure he will address these matters as he has begun to do in other forms.

RFE/RL: What do you think of Obama's choice of Cairo as the venue for his June 4 speech to the Muslim world?

De Soto:
Egypt has an enormous role, particularly in the Arab world. You have got about two-thirds of the Arab population of the world in Egypt. And the United States has a particularly close relationship with Egypt. I don't think it matters terribly where he delivers his speech, but I can understand the political reasons why he should have chosen Cairo.

RFE/RL: Former U.S. President George Bush has repeatedly said that the United States is not at war with Islam. What can Obama say or do to make that point?

De Soto:
It seems to me that what would greatly help at addressing this whole complex of problems is that there should be a deep and profound understanding and reckoning with the impression -- to the contrary, that is -- the impression that the U.S. is at war with Islam and the Muslim world that has been created over the past few years. And this would have to then be translated in the form of a change of vocabulary. And deep changes in attitude and how problems are addressed.

Two-State Solution

RFE/RL: Considering that Israel has refused the U.S. administration's recent request that it freeze the expansion of settlements on disputed territories, how do you see the future U.S. role in brokering peace process between Israeli and the Palestinians?

De Soto:
I hope that the United States will not take no for an answer on this because as along as settlements continue to grow, the Palestinians will not be persuaded that a viable Palestine and a viable two-state solution are still available. That is quite central.

If Palestinians believe that the two-state solution is finished, they can never be persuaded to be more positive about a two-state solution. And then it becomes serious because we will be heading inexorably to a completely different solution, possibly of a one-state variety and that should concentrate the minds of Israelis.

RFE/RL: What can Obama do differently from former President George W. Bush to promote democratic values and human rights in autocratic or dictatorial regimes in the Middle East?

De Soto:
That is a major challenge. The Arab world is the least free and probably least democratic area of the world. And in the globalized era, the people of that part of the world, I am sure, realize that they are somehow being left behind, and this is a problem that can no longer be postponed.

Now, the difference should be in the form of working very closely with the governments but not necessarily dictating to them what they must do. It requires a lot of painstaking daily work in order to help people in government understand that is in their interest to win over the consent of those whom they govern.

RFE/RL: What needs to happen for the dream of peaceful cooperation between the West and the Middle East to be realized.

De Soto:
The West must understand that the people in the Middle East deserve to be treated with the utmost respect, and that the same justice that the West claims for its own people should also extend to the people of the Middle East.