Obama campaigns in Israel

JERUSALEM (IPS) - Lighting a remembrance flame at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Speaking against the backdrop of a pile of empty rocket casings in the southern town of Sderot. Standing solemnly, face close to the stones of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

These are the images that Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama produced during a whirlwind 36-hour visit to Israel this week, and which he hopes will help dispel doubts about his candidacy amongst skeptical US Jewish voters.

Importantly, Obama did also make a trip to the West Bank town of Ramallah to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — a stop many of his fellow US politicians have left off their travel itinerary when visiting the Middle East.

But the US senator’s main focus on this leg of his eight-day, seven-country tour of the Middle East and Europe was Israel, not the Palestinian territories. And the audience he was speaking to was less Israelis and more Jewish voters back home.

Like his visit to the other six countries, Obama’s main intention here was to burnish his foreign policy credentials, considered his Achilles heel in his run-off with the more experienced Republican presidential hopeful John McCain.

But in Israel, Obama’s visit had an added dimension: it was meant to send a clear message to US Jewish voters that he is committed to Israel’s security and to the ongoing strategic relationship between the US and the Jewish state.

At Yad Vashem he also laid a wreath and left a message in the visitors’ book. “At a time of great peril and torment, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man’s potential for great evil, but also our capacity to rise up from tragedy and remake our world,” he wrote.

In Sderot, which has been hardest hit by rockets fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip, he held up a T-shirt he was given by the mayor with the words “I [heart] Sderot,” emblazoned on it, and a rocket, rather than an arrow, piercing the big red heart. “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop them, and I expect Israel to do the same thing,” he declared.

In his meeting with President Shimon Peres, Obama also made the type of noises that he and his advisers hope will allay concerns among Jewish voters in the US. His trip, he said, was meant “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 a president.”

Obama also met and posed for the cameras with all of the country’s top leaders. After meeting Wednesday morning with Peres, he met with Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, both of whom clambered aboard the helicopter that took him to Sderot. He also met with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and later with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem.

“Obama didn’t only meet with all past Israeli prime ministers, he met the current prime minister and all those who view themselves as future prime ministers,” a Jerusalem resident quipped ironically.

At pains to dispel doubts about his commitment to Israel’s security, Obama said that none of the Israeli leaders with whom he met “got any sense that I would be pressuring them to accept any kinds of concession that would put their security at stake.”

Some US Jewish voters are concerned that Obama, if elected, will be more sympathetic to the Palestinians than the current Bush administration. They also worry about his stated intention to engage Iran, which Israel believes is trying to build nuclear weapons, in dialogue.

“Obama has a problem with some Jewish voters,” says Roni Bart, an expert on US foreign policy in the Middle East at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. The Democratic presidential hopeful, Bart told IPS, had to find a way to “symbolize” his commitment to Israel’s security and to the relationship between the US and Israel, which explains his visits to Yad Vashem, Sderot and the Western Wall.

Most US Jews, Bart says, don’t vote based on a candidate’s position on Israel, but rather according to a candidate’s positions on domestic issues. “But there is a sizeable group (of Jewish voters) for whom the candidate’s position on Israel is the most important issue,” he said. “For this group the Palestinian issue and Obama’s stand on Iran are very important. When it comes to Iran, for instance, they perceive him as being less open to the military option than his predecessors.”

While Jewish voters only make up a fraction of the US electorate, their impact is disproportionately high. That’s because they turn out to vote in high numbers, are concentrated in some swing states like Florida, and donate money to candidates. In explaining the importance of the Jewish vote, Bart also points to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, which he says is “one of the most organized lobbies in America.”

Obama will also be aware of polling that currently shows him winning a lower proportion of the Jewish vote than any Democratic presidential candidate since polling began, says Bart. While Jews have traditionally supported the Democratic Party in large numbers — usually around 85 percent, although that figure was down to around 76 percent when John Kerry ran against George Bush in 2004 — polls now give Obama only 63 percent of the Jewish vote.

Many Israelis, certainly government officials, share the concerns that US Jews harbor about Obama. On his visit to Ramallah, he told Abbas he would “not waste a minute” in engaging in Mideast peacemaking. “When Israeli leaders hear someone saying they are going to be ‘more engaged’ in peacemaking, they equate this, justifiably, with increased US pressure on Israel to make concessions,” says Bart.

But that’s not the view of all Israelis. Many on the Israeli left have been critical of the lack of US involvement in Mideast peacemaking during the Bush term, and argue that active, energetic US engagement is essential in nudging Israelis and Palestinians towards an agreement. That seems to be the view of Obama, who has been critical of Bush’s hands-off approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But Israeli prime ministers, says Bart, will always prefer a less interventionist and “more hawkish” US president, and this explains why Israeli officials will be hoping McCain wins in November.

“Obama is perceived more as a Carter-like president and McCain more as a Bush-like president,” he says. “Between these two models, any Israeli prime minister will always prefer President Bush over President Carter.”

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2008). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.

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