Obama Comes Calling

In Israel, Obama tries to win over Jewish-American voters without upsetting the locals.

Ehud Olmert and Barack Obama
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Sen. Barack Obama

SDEROT, Israel—In the Israeli town of Sderot, locals call it the Qassam Museum. Rows of shelves piled high with the rusted, mangled hulls of crude rockets and mortars fired from the Gaza Strip. On Wednesday, it served as the backdrop for Sen. Barack Obama to sound an unequivocal message: Israel must be allowed to defend itself.

The words fell sweetly on Israeli ears, and Obama hopes they will also resonate across the sea with American Jewish voters, some of whom worry that he is cooler toward the Jewish state than Sen. John McCain.

“If somebody was sending rockets into the house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that, and I would expect Israelis to do the same thing,” Obama said at a press conference after meeting with a family whose house had been destroyed by a Qassam rocket and a young boy who had lost a leg to one.

Obama’s packed one-day visit with Israeli and Palestinian leaders—a stop on his current tour of Europe and the Middle East—was his first physical foray as presidential candidate into the cauldron of the conflict. He was being watched closely, and he knew it. He spoke slowly and deliberately, choosing words carefully as he worked to convince the pro-Israel camp that the much-touted special strategic relationship between the United States and Israel would continue if he were president, while at the same time taking pains not to alienate the Palestinians from trusting him as a potential honest broker in the future.

Seemingly the only person not breaking a sweat in the 93-degree heat of Sderot, Obama also spoke out strongly on the threat of a nuclear Iran, an issue at the top of Israel’s agenda, saying he would be taking a combination “big carrots and big sticks” approach and not taking any options off the table.

Israelis seemed pleased with his visit, from radio announcers who gushed about his American charisma and charm to the senior ministers who met with him and walked away saying they felt he understood Israel’s challenges. Palestinians, weary of the familiar staunchly pro-Israel rhetoric they hear from U.S. politicians, seemed underwhelmed, although some leaders welcomed his declaration that he would make peace efforts a priority from his first day in office.

In a swipe against President George W. Bush, who waited until late into his second term to focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace and then ambitiously promised a deal by the end of it, Obama said, “It is very important that the U.S. administration has to put its weight behind the process, recognizing it’s not going to happen immediately. That is why I will not wait until a few years into my term, my second term, if I’m elected in order to get the process moving.”

Since Obama’s gaffe this spring at the AIPAC conference in which he took the hard-line and controversial stance that Jerusalem must remain united as Israel’s capital, only to quickly backpedal, he has become a careful candidate when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian issues.

Obama tried to strike a realistic note about peace efforts, saying hard work would be required but steering clear of any tough-love talk of painful concessions that Israel might have to make in a peace deal. He made no reference to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, even after seeing part of its trappings up close, going through two checkpoints to reach a meeting in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

In Jordan the day before, however, he spoke of the Palestinians facing legitimate difficulties and said that both sides would have to make compromises.

For Uri Savir, the former chief Israeli negotiator at the Olso peace talks, Obama struck the perfect note. “I think he said all the right things in terms of relating to Israel and strategic issues, and it was especially important for me how he relates to the peace process. The most important thing was that we would be high on his priority list and that he would waste no time. So I think both the Israelis and the Palestinians came away satisfied from his visit, which is quite an accomplishment.”

Palestinian officials said they understood that Obama felt compelled to stick to an Israel-friendly script. But some wondered if, despite all his promises of change, the young senator from Illinois would be capable of bringing a new approach to the conflict.

“We are not expecting any help from him during the election campaign. There is no doubt he must balance every word he says,” said Nimer Hammad, Abbas’ adviser on political affairs. “Maybe he is more progressive on other issues, but we don’t have the sense that he is using any progressive language regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

For Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Authority minister who is currently the vice president of Bir Zeit Univeristy in Ramallah, any U.S. administration would be an improvement on the Bush White House, whose virtual carte blanche support for Israel has been taken as an affront by the Palestinians. “No one can be worse than Bush for the Middle East in general, so we think there is going to be change, but I do not know how deep,” he said.

An editorial in Israel’s liberal daily Ha’aretz on Thursday expressed concern that reassuring language meant for a Jewish audience back home might backfire on the region itself. Arguing that a realistic solution must be found for Jerusalem, the paper’s editorial board wrote, “One should keep in mind that the interests of the Israel lobby in America do not always jibe with the interests of the State of Israel.”