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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."