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Obama and McCain diverge on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Obama likely to return US to role of 'honest broker.' McCain sees fighting Islamic extremists as paramount.

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Some observers say the best clue as to what each candidate would do about the Middle East comes in looking at the advisers they have chosen on the issue.

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While Obama has a deep bench of aides with varying expertise and experience, it tends toward the views of the negotiators who worked in former administrations' peace efforts. Dennis Ross, involved in the negotiations of both the first Bush and Clinton presidencies, is a top Middle East aide.

As for McCain, his stance of playing down short-term expectations for peace talks while underscoring the immediate and continuing threat of Islamic extremism is buttressed by two sources: his close association with former Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and his chief foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, a former legislative aide to some top Capitol Hill Republicans and an early promoter of the Iraq war.

But McCain is also advised by Henry Kissinger, whose efforts toward Middle East peace birthed the term "shuttle diplomacy," named for his shuttling back and forth between Middle Eastern capitals to bring peace after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

What will matter more, in terms of reaching a settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, say some experts, will be conditions on the ground. For some, that will limit the ambitions of whoever is president.

"The situation just isn't ripe," says Phillips, noting what he sees as weak leaders on both sides, the low level of involvement by the Arab countries, and a consolidation of Hamas's power in Gaza. "Add to that the fact that a new [US] president is going to be distracted by a wide variety of issues, foreign and domestic, and I think it's fair to say any talk of launching into a peace process from Day 1 of anyone's presidency is just rhetoric."

Region experts who have lamented the lack of attention to this issue in the candidates' campaigns give Obama credit for at least putting the region on his high-profile overseas campaign trip. After visiting the Middle East, Obama will give a speech in Germany and visit Paris and London. But the opportunity for gaffes and misstatements that could rile key electorates at home – the Jewish and Arab-American communities in particular – will be great, they say.

"This is quite a bold itinerary for him, but it's also a rather risky trip," says Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, an organization that supports efforts towards resolution of the conflict.

He notes that every gesture Obama makes and every word he utters will be scrutinized. That is especially true because the anchors of all three major network news programs will be traveling with Obama – an unprecedented occurrence for a presidential campaign on the same overseas trip.

"The campaign calculus is that Americans would not fault [Obama] for saying something intelligent," Mr. Wilcox says, "but he also doesn't want to be charged with being in any way anti-Israel, which he'd have to spend weeks and weeks batting down."