Barack Obama viewed with suspicion in Israel
Date: Friday, August 01, 2008 @ 15:45:39 EDT
Topic: Hebrews

Barack Obama has already made remarks that are likely to unsettle his Israeli hosts

Tim Reid in Washington and James Hider in Jerusalem

Barack Hussein Obama

Barack Obama pledged yesterday to work for peace between Israel and the Palestinians from his first day in office, hours before arriving in the region where he faces a sceptical audience on both sides of the conflict.

The Democratic presidential candidate, who is struggling to win over Jewish voters in America and is viewed with suspicion in Israel, holds meetings in Jerusalem and the West Bank today during the thorniest leg of his international tour. It will be a far cry from the rapturous public reception that he is likely to receive in Berlin tomorrow.

Talking to reporters in Jordan yesterday, Mr Obama made remarks that are likely to unsettle his Israeli hosts. Although he reiterated his unflinching support for Israel, he went out of his way to highlight the economic and political struggle of the Palestinians, saying: “What I think can change is the ability of the United States government and a United States president . . . to be concerned and recognise the legitimate difficulties that the Palestinian people are experiencing right now.”

Israelis are particularly suspicious of Mr Obama because of his willingness to talk to Iran’s leadership, and a perception that he is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Unlike a visit to the region by his Republican rival John McCain in May, the Democrat will not only hold meetings in Jerusalem, but will travel to the West Bank city of Ramallah to talk with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, and Salam Fayyad, the Prime Minister.
Mr Obama is likely to seek to clarify his declaration last month, made in a speech to a powerful Jewish-American lobby group, that Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of Israel . The remark appeared to pre-judge final status talks, and went even further than current policy under the Bush Administration. He then backtracked, calling it “poor phrasing”.

It was an episode that caused consternation among both Israelis and the Palestinians, and was a warning to Mr Obama of what a diplomatic minefield he enters today, where every comment will be minutely scrutinised.

“I think it’s going to be difficult for him,” said Shmuel Bar, an Iran expert at the Institute of Policy and Strategy in Herzliya. “The general direction of his policy [toward Iran] is going to be engagement bordering on appeasement,” he said.

He added that Arab states who also mistrust Iran would be as nervous as Israel if America took too soft a stance towards Tehran.

In his Jordanian press conference, Mr Obama appeared to play down his Israeli and Palestinian hosts’ ability to bring about peace, because of their enfeebled political positions at home. “The Israeli Government is unsettled. The Palestinians are divided between Fatah and Hamas. And so it’s difficult for either side to make the bold move that would bring about peace.”

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, faces a corruption investigation, while Mr Abbas lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas, the extremist group, in June 2007. A renewed push for peace, begun by Mr Bush last year, has made little progress.

Mr Obama condemned an attack in Jerusalem yesterday, where a Palestinian man rammed a bulldozer into cars and a bus near the hotel where the Democratic candidate was scheduled to stay. Sixteen people were injured in the attack. An Israeli civilian shot and killed the driver.

“It’s just one more reminder why we have to work diligently, urgently and in a unified way to defeat terrorism,” Mr Obama said shortly after he arrived in Israel. There is no evidence that the attack was linked to his visit.

Mr Obama today meets Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, the Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and President Peres. He then travels to Ramallah. He dines with Mr Olmert tonight. He leaves tomorrow for Berlin where he will make the major public appearance of the trip, a speech at the Victory Column in the Tiergarten.

After meeting President Sarkozy on Friday, he travels to London on Saturday. His first meeting will be with Tony Blair, followed by talks with Gordon Brown at Downing Street and then a session with David Cameron.


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