Obama goes to Israel.

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 24 2008 12:43 PM

Obama Comes Calling

In Israel, Obama tries to win over Jewish-American voters without upsetting the locals.

Ehud Olmert and Barack Obama
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Sen. Barack Obama

SDEROT, Israel—In the Israeli town of Sderot, locals call it the Qassam Museum. Rows of shelves piled high with the rusted, mangled hulls of crude rockets and mortars fired from the Gaza Strip. On Wednesday, it served as the backdrop for Sen. Barack Obama to sound an unequivocal message: Israel must be allowed to defend itself.

The words fell sweetly on Israeli ears, and Obama hopes they will also resonate across the sea with American Jewish voters, some of whom worry that he is cooler toward the Jewish state than Sen. John McCain.

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"If somebody was sending rockets into the house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that, and I would expect Israelis to do the same thing," Obama said at a press conference after meeting with a family whose house had been destroyed by a Qassam rocket and a young boy who had lost a leg to one.

Obama's packed one-day visit with Israeli and Palestinian leaders—a stop on his current tour of Europe and the Middle East—was his first physical foray as presidential candidate into the cauldron of the conflict. He was being watched closely, and he knew it. He spoke slowly and deliberately, choosing words carefully as he worked to convince the pro-Israel camp that the much-touted special strategic relationship between the United States and Israel would continue if he were president, while at the same time taking pains not to alienate the Palestinians from trusting him as a potential honest broker in the future.

Seemingly the only person not breaking a sweat in the 93-degree heat of Sderot, Obama also spoke out strongly on the threat of a nuclear Iran, an issue at the top of Israel's agenda, saying he would be taking a combination "big carrots and big sticks" approach and not taking any options off the table.

Israelis seemed pleased with his visit, from radio announcers who gushed about his American charisma and charm to the senior ministers who met with him and walked away saying they felt he understood Israel's challenges. Palestinians, weary of the familiar staunchly pro-Israel rhetoric they hear from U.S. politicians, seemed underwhelmed, although some leaders welcomed his declaration that he would make peace efforts a priority from his first day in office.

In a swipe against President George W. Bush, who waited until late into his second term to focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace and then ambitiously promised a deal by the end of it, Obama said, "It is very important that the U.S. administration has to put its weight behind the process, recognizing it's not going to happen immediately. That is why I will not wait until a few years into my term, my second term, if I'm elected in order to get the process moving."

Since Obama's gaffe this spring at the AIPAC conference in which he took the hard-line and controversial stance that Jerusalem must remain united as Israel's capital, only to quickly backpedal, he has become a careful candidate when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian issues.

Obama tried to strike a realistic note about peace efforts, saying hard work would be required but steering clear of any tough-love talk of painful concessions that Israel might have to make in a peace deal. He made no reference to Israel's occupation of the West Bank, even after seeing part of its trappings up close, going through two checkpoints to reach a meeting in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

In Jordan the day before, however, he spoke of the Palestinians facing legitimate difficulties and said that both sides would have to make compromises.