Obama tries to balance solidarity and neutrality
The latest stops in his Mideast tour included the rocket-besieged Israeli town of Sderot and the West Bank town of Ramallah.
Ramallah, West Bank
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But Senator Obama's latest stop in his multinational tour was a whirlwind primer in trying to simultaneously express solidarity and neutrality in the political minefield that is the Middle East.
"I'm here on this trip to reaffirm the special relationship between Israel and the United States and my abiding commitment to Israel's security and my hope that I can serve as an effective partner, whether as a US senator or as president," Obama said during a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Such comments sound positive to Israelis, but are frustrating Palestinians and other Arabs, who were hoping that Obama's pledge for change would include a more evenhanded approach. Obama made a short visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but made no comments to the press.
"Obama has had difficulty balancing his statements," says George Giacaman, who teaches at Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah. He pointed to Obama's comments to AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], in which he said Jerusalem must remain undivided. He has since said that its status must be negotiated.
"I think his visit here is a courtesy visit," Mr. Giacaman says, noting that Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who gets higher ratings among Israelis than does Obama, made no trips to Palestinian Authority offices on a visit in March, but went to the rocket-pocked Israeli town of Sderot. "The criticism between McCain and Obama over this is just a way for them to gain credit with one constituency or another. It's hard to judge what policy will look like...."
Obama is meeting with Israeli leaders – taking a helicopter tour of the country guided by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni – and visiting Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Museum and Memorial, and Sderot, close to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
The area is in a rare lull since Israel and Hamas reached a temporary agreement for calm. And it opened its arms wide for Obama. The boulevard into the working-class town was lined with US and Israeli flags for the first time that locals could remember, despite the city being a regular stop for visiting foreign dignitaries.
At the New Age hair salon, whose worn sign spoke to years of economic decline, hairdresser Yaffa Malka said Obama seemed trustworthy. "He looks honest. He knows what pain and distress is," she said. "He knows what it is to be part of a people who aren't liked."
A lot of people are excited by his candidacy, she added, because "he comes from below, not above."