- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

TEL AVIV| Employing a series of visceral backdrops to demonstrate twin commitments to the peace process and Israel’s security, Sen. Barack Obama has scheduled a whirlwind tour Wednesday that takes him from Jerusalem and Ramallah to a heavily shelled Israeli town near the Gaza Strip.

Speaking in Amman, Jordan, on Tuesday, the presumptive Democratic nominee pledged to work on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks “starting from the minute I’m sworn into office.”

He also reiterated a commitment to maintaining the strategic alliance between the U.S. and Israel - a statement that disappointed many in the Arab world hoping for a break with the Bush administration’s open favoritism for Israel in peace talks but that is likely to mollify concerns American Jewish voters have about a possible shift in U.S. policy.

With polls suggesting that Mr. Obama lags the two previous Democratic Party nominees among American Jews - a key constituency in the battleground state of Florida - the visit is seen as a chance for the Illinois senator to correct those impressions. In addition to meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Mr. Obama will visit Israel’s Holocaust memorial, the missile-scarred city of Sderot and reportedly the Western Wall.

“These are all symbolic. Sderot, of Israelis struggle against terrorism and Hamas. Yad Vashem, of Israel’s past history of pain and the Shoah. The Wall is the tradition and Jerusalem,” said Abraham Foxman, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League. “These are classic sites. Whether it was [British Prime Minister] Gordon Brown, [New Jersey] Governor [Jon] Corzine, this is the route of photo-ops.”

Indeed, though Mr. Obama will follow in the footsteps of presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, who visited just a few months ago, Mr. McCain arrived with one crucial advantage - his link to President Bush, considered by many Israelis as one of the country’s staunchest backers ever to occupy the White House.

The main break with Mr. McCain will come when, as if on a shuttle mission, Mr. Obama’s entourage travels 10 minutes north of Jerusalem for a visit to Ramallah’s Muqata, the Palestinian Authority’s presidential compound, for a meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

“The Ramallah visit shows that he intends as president to talk to both Israelis and Palestinians, and that he´s serious about working for peace,” wrote Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli-American historian and journalist on his blog, South Jerusalem.

“It would have been easy to skip Ramallah for fearing of losing Jewish votes … The common mistake among candidates is to believe the right-wing minority in the U.S. Jewish community that purports to speak for the community as a whole, and that regards any contact with Palestinians as betraying Israel.”

To be sure, a recent public opinion survey commissioned by the J Street, Washington’s dovish pro-Israel lobby, suggest that while Israel is important to American Jews’ choice for president, more of them rank the economy and Iraq as taking priority in their voting selection.

Just hours before Mr. Obama’s late-night arrival, a Palestinian in Jerusalem commandeered a bulldozer and attempted to mow down Israelis on a central intersection just a few hundred feet from the hotel in which the senator will be staying. The attack was particularly disturbing for Israelis because it was the second such rampage in three weeks.

Speaking in Amman, Mr. Obama condemned the attack. Palestinians were taken aback by his strong words for Israel in the Jordanian capital.

“Why did he choose an Arab country to voice support for Israel,” said Palestinian legislator Jihad Abu Snein. “Even before setting foot in Palestine, why do you need to say that before you even sit with the Palestinian president.”

Israel’s press noted that the twin visits of presidential hopefuls Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama are unprecedented for the Jewish state. The top-selling daily Yediot Ahronot newspaper reported how face time with the Illinois senator became a turf war for the Israeli Cabinet ministers who hope to succeed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

But writing in the same paper, columnist Yair Lapid speculated that despite Mr. Obama’s pledge to tackle Israeli-Palestinian talks immediately, Arab-Israeli peace would not take precedence over other more pressing economic, social and foreign policy issues.

“Our problem with Obama is not his views - he holds the right views, as does any liberal Democrat - but his priorities,” he wrote. “In the next few days he will show us, with incontrovertible proof, how much he likes us. Then he will go and take care of what he really cares about.”



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