Hisham Melhem On His Big Scoop, and Big Changes Coming

My brother Hisham Melhem of al-Arabiya television scored an important interview with Barack Obama yesterday, so I called him to say Mazel Tov and to ask him if he thinks the interview signals a shift in rhetoric or a shift in substance.  Here's what he had to say:

Jeffrey Goldberg: What have you been hearing so far about the interview?

Hisham Melhem: I think many people in the Muslim world, ordinary people, were, judging by our website, sensed a different tone, that Obama was trying to reach out to them.

JG: George W. Bush called Islam a "religion of peace" in a mosque right after 9/11, though.

HM: What George Bush did initially was great. He went to a mosque, he listened to Brent Scowcroft, but later on, with his inability to make distinctions between groups like al-Qaeda on the one hand and Hamas and Hezbollah on the other, with many other things, the tone changed. Let's be clear: A president named Barack Hussein Obama sees the world differently from a president named George W. Bush, in part because of his biography, in part because of intellect. He senses that maybe America is less Western-centric than it used to be. The world is no longer Europe and North America.

JG: Did you sense any important shift in the way he thinks about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute?

HM: He talked about Israelis making sacrifices and that Israelis and Palestinians endure pain the same way. I'm not willing to say there is a shift in substance, but there is a shift in approach on the tone vis-à-vis Palestinian suffering. He showed that he understands the need for dignity and a place to call their own. And there will be a different approach, in the sense that sending George Mitchell is an important thing. He has talked both about Palestinian violence and Israeli settlement.

JG: But come back to substance: He's not abandoning Israel, he's maintaining a hard line on Pakistan --

HM: Look, in the long run, he is telling the Muslim world that it's going to have a difficult time demonizing him.  He's saying, "I'm willing to disagree with the people of the Muslim world respectfully." He was miffed and angry by Zawahiri and Bin Laden, the way they speak of him. And he jumped on it and dealt with it. There's a subtle shift here on how he looks at the war on al-Qaeda and the groups that collaborate with it. He doesn't put Hamas and Hezbollah in the same category as al-Qaeda. Is there going to be disappointment later? We're bound to have disappointments, but the main message is that a new wind is blowing. He's closing down Guantanamo, sending Mitchell, pulling out of Iraq, and maybe I'm dreaming but I hope he would show Palestinians and Israelis tough love, both of them. Do you want to tell me that Bin Laden and all these nuts are not going to be nervous about him?