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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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In June speeches to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the leading pro-Israel lobbying group, both candidates offered support to talks under way between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

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McCain noted the talks bringing together Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, saying "all of us hope [they] will yield progress toward peace." But he said that "we must also ensure that Israel's people can live in safety until there is a Palestinian leadership willing and able to deliver peace." He then added, "a peace process that places faith in terrorists can never end in peace" – an apparent reference to the Hamas leadership in Gaza.

In his speech, Obama first set forth his view that Israel's security is "sacrosanct" and proposed a "deepened" defense cooperation between the US and Israel with $30 billion in assistance to Israel over the next decade, uncoupled from any assistance to other countries in the region (read Egypt). He then said, "real security can only come through lasting peace," adding that, "as president, I will work to help Israel achieve the goal of two states ... living side by side in peace and security" – almost word for word Bush's oft-stated formula for peace.

But Obama also said he would "not wait until the waning days of my presidency" – a reference to President Bush, with the Annapolis peace process announced last year, and also to other presidents, including Clinton, who engaged in a full-court press on peace talks in the final months of their presidencies. "I will take an active role, and make a personal commitment to do all I can to advance the cause of peace from the start of my administration," Obama told the pro-Israel AIPAC.

Such a personal commitment, as well as stepped–up efforts to engage Arab countries in resolving the conflict, is what Obama meant when he said in a speech last week that he would "deepen" the US role in the peace process, some advisers say.

In any case, much of what Obama said to AIPAC went largely unnoticed because all the attention was grabbed by another statement Obama made in the speech – that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."

The statement set off alarms among Arabs and Palestinians, who also claim Jerusalem as their capital, and it contradicted established US policy, which holds Jerusalem as a final-status issue for advanced negotiations.

An Obama adviser subsequently clarified that the candidate was not ruling out other arrangements – such as a sharing of parts of Jerusalem so it could serve as each people's capital – to which the two sides might agree.

That clarification led some in the pro-Israel camp to argue that Obama had been "misleading," even as Mr. Abbas – with whom Obama is to meet this week – said he was "disappointed" by Obama's original statement.

Heritage's Mr. Phillips says he saw Obama's Jerusalem statement as an example of how "he tends to tell audiences what they want to hear. In that sense," he adds, "he's a traditional politician, saying one thing and stepping back from it later." Phillips notes that President Bush as a candidate in 2000 insisted he would move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, something he never did.