Big News During Obama Israel Visit? Don’t Count On it

Monday, July 21st, 2008

James Besser in Washington

Pro-peace process groups are hoping Sen. Barack Obama will use this week’s trip to the Middle East, which will include stops in Jerusalem and Ramallah and talks with top Israeli and Palestinian leaders, to lay out more explicitly how he will intensify U.S. efforts to mediate the conflict if he wins in November.

They’re almost certain to be disappointed. If all goes according to plan, the Obama trip will generate some front page stories and lots of pictures of him with world leaders, but no controversy. And when it comes to the Arab- Israeli conflict, almost any substantive statement ignites controversy.

Officially, the  presumptive Democratic nominee is going to the region to listen and to introduce himself to Mideast leaders.

What this trip is really about is laying the groundwork to rebut GOP charges that Obama is a foreign policy naïf ready to wave the white flag of surrender around the world.

It is about refining his public stance and image on Iraq and Afghanistan,  potentially deadly minefields for both presidential contenders.

It is about looking presidential and statesmanlike, a critical step in changing the perception among some voters that he is too young and too inexperienced for the job, a view Republican strategists are working feverishly to solidify.

It’s about generating positive photo ops and bolstering the impression he can interact with world leaders as an equal.

Against that backdrop, the Israel-Palestinian issue will be relatively easy for the Democratic contender.

Look for the broadest possible statements about his unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, the horrors of terrorism, his determination to help the parties come to an agreement but also about how peace can’t be imposed from the outside.

He will seek to reassure nervous Israel-focused voters that he connects with Israel and its leaders on a gut level, without offering details that the Republicans will use to stir up those anxieties.

Obama’s Jewish advisers aren’t stupid; they know that if he went to the region and laid out a detailed plan for Palestinian statehood identical to that of President Bush – still touted by Republicans as the best-ever pro-Israel president – the Republicans and the Jewish right would savage him as a mortal danger to the Jewish state. (”What do you mean, he supports a viable Palestinian state?”  “He thinks the status of Jerusalem should be negotiated? He must be anti-Israel.”)

Look for mild sympathy for the Palestinians but nothing too specific; no doubt he will also speak sternly to Palestinian leaders about the need to do more to curb terrorism and end incitement.   Obama will issue strong warnings about Iran, but with an emphasis on sanctions and diplomacy, not war.

Look for Obama to be extraordinarily well briefed when speaking about anything connected to Israel and its efforts to find a route to peace.  That’s why former Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross is tagging along.  Ross, associated with the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, knows both the intricacies of Middle East peacemaking and the even more complicated realities of Jewish politics.

But while the Jewish press and pro-Israel groups across the political spectrum will understandably focus on what he says about Israel and its neighbors, those issues are not Obama’s top priorities as he takes his campaign to the global stage.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.