WITH his speech in Cairo yesterday President Obama showed that he can bring his eloquence and intelligence to bear on issues that have plagued the world for decades, even centuries, just as effectively as on newly-wrought economic and political problems.

What he said needs deeper analysis than is possible in this space but certain points stood out clearly. Most noticeable was the new equivalence between America's “unbreakable bond with Israel” and his view that “the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable” and that “America will not turn our back on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.” The references to Jerusalem as “a home for Jews, Christians and Muslims” and to America's inability “to accept the legitimacy of continued Israel settlements” could not have been clearer. At the same time Mr Obama spoke movingly about historical Jewish suffering and about “ignorant, hateful, unhelpful” anti-Semitism.

The speech was skillfully structured, beginning with his own family links to Islam, the learning with which Muslim scholarship has enriched the world, and the substantial presence of Muslims in America -- seven million of them, making “Islam a part of America”. The first burst of applause came early when he said, “Assalaamu alaykum” (“Peace be upon you”) and many others followed, especially for his Koranic quotations.

As he said: “No single speech can put right what has been wrong between us” but yesterday he made an impressive start in realigning relations between the United States (and the West) and Islam.