Obama delivers strong attack on Israeli settlements in speech to Muslim world
President Obama is given a standing ovation after delivering his speech in Cairo
Barack Obama today delivered one of the strongest condemnations by an American president of Israeli settlement building and made a startling admission of past US foreign policy mistakes.
In an audacious speech at Al-Azhar university in Cairo to a worldwide audience of 1.5 billion Muslims, Mr Obama told the Israeli government that continuing to construct new Jewish homes in the occupied Palestinian territories was unacceptable and must stop.
Mr Obama went further than any US President in recent memory in conceding that America had sometimes been wrong, citing past policies towards Iran and recent reactions after 9/11. He implied that the invasion of Iraq had been a mistake.
He also made thinly-veiled criticisms of the authoritarian regimes in Middle Eastern countries to which America has in the past appeared uncritically supportive.
But perhaps his toughest words, and one of the most warmly received sections of the speech, were his rebuke for Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, who has refused to halt West Bank settlement expansion.
"The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," said Mr Obama.
"This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."
Mr Obama did say that the US bond with Israel, the source of much Arab distrust of the United States, was unbreakable, and he rejected "baseless, ignorant and hateful" rants by those who deny the Nazi Holocaust.
To underline his point, Mr Obama is due to tour the former Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald tomorrow.
But he also voiced compassion for the millions of Palestinians who have lived for decades under Israeli occupation in refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank, and called on all parties to play their part in reviving stalled peace talks.
"Let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable," he said.
"The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security. That is in Israelâ€™s interest, Palestineâ€™s interest, Americaâ€™s interest, and the worldâ€™s interest."
There was criticism for other Middle Eastern countries for failing to shoulder their responsibility.
"The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state; to recognise Israel â€™s legitimacy; and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past."
He condemned the attitude of regimes who had grown rich extracting oil and gas but had not used the wealth to improve the education and living standards of their people - an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia, where Mr Obama stayed last night as the guest of King Abdullah.
He advocated education and rights for women.
Some of his words are set raise eyebrows in the United States. Despite an uncompromising defence of America's pursuit of al-Qaeda and of its invasion of Afghanistan, he went on to cast doubt on the US's actions in Iraq.
"Unlike Afghanistan , Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world," said Mr Obama.
"Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible."
Other surprising admissions include that "in the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government".
Mr Obama also appeared to make a direct appeal to Hamas, which is officially listed by America as a terrorist organisation. He suggested it should shoulder its responsibilities as the elected government of the Gaza Strip and renounce violence.
He wove in quotations from the Koran and frequent praise of Islam's traditions of learning, culture and tolerance in building an appeal for all faiths and nationalities to make a fresh start, and work in co-operation with one another.