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09TUNIS71 2009-02-03 16:24:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Tunis
Cable title:  

PRESIDENT'S AL-ARABIYA INTERVIEW: FACTUAL PRESS

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1. (C) Summary: President Obama's January 26 interview on
al-Arabiya has garnered limited specific reaction, probably a
result of al-Arabiya's lean market penetration in Tunisia.
That said, those contacts who did watch the interview or read
the transcript have responded favorably, especially to the
metaphor of an "extended hand." Embassy contacts continue to
echo the overwhelmingly positive response to the Obama
Administration that they articulated at the January 20
reception/inauguration viewing that the Ambassador hosted
(Ref B), although some have added that they will judge
President Obama by his actions, not his words. Across the
board, contacts have been telling us that if President Obama
wants to change the way America is perceived in the world, he
needs to "get serious" about solving the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. End Summary.



--------------------------


GOT Welcomes Obama; Wants to Re-Engage


--------------------------





2. (SBU) Oussama Romdhani, the Director of the Tunisian
Agency for External Communications, told the Ambassador that
he was pleased to see President Obama's outreach via
al-Arabiya. He also commented that President Obama had moved
faster than anyone expected on outreach to the Arab and
Muslim worlds and on specific challenges, such as announcing
the closure of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
Echoing a theme heard from a range of Embassy contacts,
Romdhani said that it is essential for the Obama
Administration to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict.



3. (SBU) In a February 2 meeting at the Chamber of Deputies,
15 Tunisian Parliamentarians conveyed that they welcomed the
Obama Administration, that they were hopeful about the
positive impact that his policies would bring to the Middle
East, and that they were eager to revive bilateral relations.
Three participants had visited the United States in late
January, during which they attended the inauguration and held
several meetings with Administration officials, Senators, and
Members of Congress. They were joined by others, who are
Members of the US Caucus. Several Members embraced the
President's "new discourse," as articulated in both his
inaugural address and his interview with al-Arabiya. Some
underscored importance of the President's themes of mutual
respect and extending a hand to the Muslim world.



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Media Spin


--------------------------





4. (SBU) In the two days following President Obama's
al-Arabiya interview, Tunisian media offered factual
coverage. A few editorials have since been published, with
most focusing on Senator Mitchell's appointment and travel in
the region. One opposition newspaper's editorial, headlined,
"Historic Opportunity," gave voice to the hope that the Obama
Administration will work to bring peace to the region,
reconcile East and West, and destroy the roots of extremism,
which grow stronger when justice does not prevail." An
editorial in French daily Le Temps characterized Mitchell as
"an honest and balanced man." A few days later, Le Temps
noted that it would be naive to expect revolutionary changes
from President Obama, since the United States still considers
Israel as a strategic ally. Even so, the editorial welcomed
the appointment of Senator Mitchell as a "clear signal" that
the Administration is seeking an equitable resolution to the
conflict.



--------------------------


Tunisians Welcome Overture
But Will Judge Actions, Not Words


--------------------------





5. (C) Ambassador and EmbOffs continue to engage Tunisians in
many walks of life to solicit views on the new Administration
and ideas about how to take advantage of this new beginning
to move forward in our bilateral relationship. Embassy will
report our findings and recommendations septel. In the
meantime, key themes that we have been hearing from our

TUNIS 00000071 002 OF 002


contacts include the following:

-- There continues to be an overwhelmingly positive response
to President Obama's election, his vision, and the policy
approaches that he has already put in place with respect to
the closing of Guantanamo and appointment of Senator Mitchell
as Special Envoy.

-- Many perceive President Obama as the embodiment of "the
American dream." They believe that as such he has restored
the United States as a moral leader in the international
community.

-- Some contacts identify with the President's African roots
and feel proud of his African ties.

-- Many contacts have expressed appreciation for his
overtures to the Arab/Muslim world.

-- As more than one contact has put it, "Ultimately, we will
judge Obama by his actions, not words." Expanding on this
point, one opposition party figure told us that, while many
appreciate President Obama's articulation of policy, there is
still widespread skepticism that he will be able to implement
all that he has set out to do. Thus, this contact said he
would refrain from making judgments until after Obama's first
100 days in office.

-- Across the board, contacts have been telling us that if
President Obama really wants to make a difference in how
America is perceived by the world, he needs to "get serious"
about solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have
specified that this will entail "reining in" the Government
of Israel on excessive use of force against Palestinians and
the expansion of settlements. One contact, a retired
diplomat, suggested that Obama use the phrase "42 years of
occupation is enough" in a public speech. Several contacts
have told us that they support Israel's right to exist and to
defend itself, but they reject Israel's military actions as
disproportionate and contrary to international humanitarian
law. Thus, they urge the United States to make clear to
Israel that it will defend Israel's right to defend itself,
but not Israel's "crimes." These contacts also want to see a
swift and comprehensive humanitarian response to the
destruction in Gaza.

-- Some contacts opined that Obama should have chosen
al-Jazeera for his interview, reasoning that al-Jazeera
enjoys the greatest Arab viewership.

Please visit Embassy Tunis' Classified Website at:
http://www.state.sgov.gov/p/nea/tunis/index.c fm
Godec