Obama, Speaking in Muslim Nation, Voices Concern About Mideast Peace, Israeli Construction

November 9, 2010 - 8:14 AM

Indonesia-Obama

President Barack Obama and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono hold a joint news conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Jakarta, Indonesia (AP) - Speaking in the heart of the world's largest Muslim nation, President Barack Obama expressed deep concern Tuesday that Israelis and Palestinians aren't making the "extra effort" to secure a breakthrough needed to achieve Middle East Peace.

Obama said he hasn't seen the kind of progress in negotiations that "could finally create a framework for a secure Israel living side by side in peace with a sovereign Palestine."

Asked at a news conference with Indonesia's President Suslilo Bambang Yudhoyono about Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem, Obama said, "Each of these incremental steps can end up breaking that trust between these parties."

Obama raised his Mideast concerns while appearing with Yudhoyono during his first visit to Indonesia as president to the country where he lived for four years as a child. He marveled over "sights and sounds" that evoked memories of the past and said that Indonesia's landscape of today barely resembles the land where he went to live at age 6 in 1967.

The president said he believes the administration has improved relations with the Muslim work, but called it an "incomplete project," saying much more work needs to be done. Obama said policy differences with Muslim countries will linger, but that building better ties between the people of the United States and the Muslim world will foster improved overall relations.

He voiced support for Yudhoyono's efforts to nurture a rapidly growing society even in a time when Indonesia has been hit by earthquakes, a tsunami, and now a volcanic eruption. Concerns about volcanic ash caused the White House to shorten Obama's stay here and expedite his takeoff Wednesday for the G-20 summit in Seoul.

Mount Merapi, Indonesia's most volatile volcano, began erupting two weeks ago, unleashing a flood of volcanic gas, rock and debris that smothered whole villages and cut down people who tried to fleeing. More than 150 people have died.

As scheduled, the trip was less than 24 hours, with Obama arriving late afternoon Tuesday and leaving midday Wednesday. The trip was shoehorned into a jam-packed 10-day Asia trip, between three days spent in India and economic meetings in South Korea and Japan that start Thursday.

Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrived on a gray, humid day in Indonesia's capital, and were greeted by dozens of dignitaries at Istana Merdeka, a white columned presidential palace reminiscent of the White House. Obama greeted some of the officials in Indonesian as he shook their hands.

Indonesians all over this country of more than 17,000 islands gathered around television sets in their houses, coffee shops and office buildings as Obama's plane touched down.

Notwithstanding the likely change in schedule for his time here, Obama's quick stop to visit a country that an increasingly important player in Asia allowed him to speak to the values of democracy and religious tolerance and reflect on his time here as a boy.

The U.S. has increasingly embraced Indonesia as a moderate Muslim nation and partner in counter-terror efforts in the wake of attacks in Bali, Jakarta and elsewhere in the region between 2002 and 2005. Like India, Indonesia is also seen as a counterweight to China's gathering strength. The nation of 250 million people is made up of a string of islands stretched through the Indian Ocean between Australia and Malaysia.

"Lots of U.S. interests and lots of challenges and opportunities intersect in Indonesia," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters Monday.

"The president will be able to speak to the positive example that Indonesia sets ... as a country with a thriving Islamic community, but also a country that has a pluralistic tradition."

Obama's abbreviated schedule doesn't allow time for him to visit childhood haunts, but he intends to speak to his personal biography at an address to a large crowd at the University of Indonesia scheduled for Wednesday morning. The future president moved to Jakarta when he was 6, after his divorced mother remarried an Indonesian, and lived here until he was 10.

Obama's stepfather was Muslim, and during his time in Indonesia Obama occasionally studied the Quran and visited a local mosque. Although Obama is Christian, that background helped foster enduring rumors in the U.S. about the president's religion.

Planning for Obama's Asia trip featured a religious controversy when the president opted not to visit the Golden Temple Sikh holy site in India, spawning rumors that he wanted to avoid wearing a head covering that could make him appear Muslim. In Jakarta the president planned to visit the giant Istqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia and a popular tourist attraction.

The president was to conclude his Indonesia visit with a wreath-laying at Kalibata Heroes Cemetery, the burial site of veterans of the Indonesian National Revolution, somewhat equivalent to Arlington National Cemetery in the United States.

------

Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Niniek Karmini contributed to this report.