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.

US Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday, seeking to send signals of support to both sides of the conflict.

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."

In remarks given at the police station, with mounds of empty rocket casings stacked behind him, Obama offered his support to the town, which has been beleaguered by rockets fired from Gaza. "I am here to say as an American and as a friend of Israel," he said, "that we stand with the people of Sderot and all of the people of Israel."

He also promised to push actively for peace, saying that he would not "wait a few years into my term or my second term, if I'm elected," to press for a deal.

"We don't need a peace deal just to have a piece of paper," he said. "We need something that's meaningful."

Wednesday night, Obama was scheduled have dinner with embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and is expected to take a nighttime trip to visit the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.

Obama's statements of unshakable support for Israel's security has surprised some Palestinians, who thought his championing of the underdog and his criticism of White House policies in the region – especially in Iraq – would translate into a more outspoken backing for their cause.

"I'm demoralized about the position of Obama, because so far he's only expressed support for Israel and not Palestinians," says Jamil Fawzi, who lives here in Ramallah and has US citizenship. "The only difference in him having made this adjustment is that it will make Arabs in America vote for him. I couldn't bear to elect him because if he attacks Muslims, I will feel responsible."

A cafe owner here, where Mr. Fawzi is taking an afternoon break from the beating sun, says that Palestinians would be better off not pinning so much hope on US intervention. "Palestinians should not place such an important role on the US. We should focus on the relationship with Israel," says Mohanned Koran.

Some here pointed to Obama's inexperience in the Middle East. "He jumped into the Jerusalem issue immediately, without being cautious or careful, and that's not the way to please anybody," says Abdel Majid Sweilem, who teaches at Al-Quds University, headquartered in East Jerusalem. "We don't demand the US ditch its support for Israel, but that it doesn't sacrifice its whole position in the Middle East for the sake of Israel.

One man here, a hydrologist, has launched an Obama Fan Club. Omar Jibril, the founder of the group, read Obama's books and got inspired.

"Obama has written extensively about freedom and the underprivileged, and we fit into that category," Mr. Jibril said. "After eight years of Bush and the ensuing oppression in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama will represent change," he asserted. "He's here to pay his respect to our leaders, unlike John McCain, who only went to Israel."

Michael Oren, a historian of the US-Israel relationship and fellow at the Shalem Center, says that polls of Israelis show McCain is more popular than Obama, in that he's seen as someone who is good for Israel.

"The American election is covered minimally here, and, as result, Israelis are spectacularly uninformed of what's going on this election, and unforgivably, because this election will have acute impact on the future of the Middle East," says Mr. Oren, author of "Power, Faith and Fantasy, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present."

"There is a substantive difference in their platforms and what to expect, and McCain is more line with Israeli thinking," Oren says. "Most Americans aren't even aware of the differences. But there really is a choice here. You're really looking at two distinct visions of America's future in Israel."

Joshua Mitnick contributed from Sderot, Israel. Wire material was used.

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