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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.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 22, 2008

VOICE OF EXPERIENCE? In a Saturday radio address, Sen. John McCain said his military experience made him better suited than Obama to lead the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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WASHINGTON

When Barack Obama stops in Jerusalem and Ramallah this week – as part of an overseas trip designed to reassure the American electorate about the presumptive Democratic nominee's national security credentials – he'll be wading into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

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Neither Senator Obama nor Republican nominee John McCain have spoken much about how they might resolve this key Middle Eastern issue. But what hints the candidates have given suggest that Obama will probably return the US to a more traditional role of "honest broker," analysts say. Senator McCain would be more likely to subordinate any peace talks to battling Islamic extremism, leaving Israel to chart its own path.

The two presidential candidates have more distinct and well-outlined positions on Iraq (where Obama is expected Monday) and Afghanistan (where he spent the weekend). The German weekly Der Spiegel reported Saturday that Iraq's President Nouri al-Maliki supported Obama's plan to withdraw most US troops from Iraq within 16 months, starting in January 2009. But an Iraqi government spokesmen Sunday said that Mr. Maliki had been "misunderstood and mistranslated" and his comments "should not be understood as support for any US presidential candidate."

The White House said Friday that US and Iraqi officials would set a "time horizon" for the withdrawal of US troops, based on conditions on the ground. McCain's spokeswoman responded that a "conditions-based withdrawal" is something the candidate has always supported.

Both McCain and Obama have called for sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Foreign policy advisers to Obama say the stops in Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank will signal a return to a US policy of placing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal at the center of a vision for the region, if Obama is elected.

"The differences between the two [on this issue] are not as great as they are on Iraq and Afghanistan, but that's not to say it would all be the same, because it wouldn't," says James Phillips, Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "McCain is less sympathetic toward the Palestinian side, and while he supports peace talks, I don't see him as too optimistic about their short-term outcome, so I don't think we'd see him diving in to personally oversee them," he says. "Obama seems much more likely to risk his personal presidential capital to try to jump-start talks and get something going."

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