Obama in Israel: What to look for

It’s not quite as big a stage as the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, but plenty of pundits and Jewish observers will be paying attention Wednesday as Barack Obama visits Israel (the first half of the sentence was a joke … I think).

Obama spoke at the AIPAC parley back in early June, the morning after the final Democratic primaries came to a close and most everyone in the country (except Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Clinton and a few loyalists) had recognized him as the party’s presumptive nominee.

That speech was supposed to be the final word – it was going to put to rest any doubts among Jewish voters about Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides. And not a moment too soon, with hawkish Jewish Democrats starting to think about their options in the fall and a Gallup poll showing Obama winning a bit more than 60 percent of the Jewish vote in a hypothetical matchup in the general election against John McCain – five points worse than Clinton and about 15 points below John Kerry’s numbers in 2004.

To be sure, judging from the applause, the AIPAC speech was well received by the 5,000-plus in attendance, but the subsequent flap over Obama’s call for a “united Jerusalem” – culminating with one aide saying Obama had misused the term and the candidate himself blaming “poor phrasing” – took some wind out of Team Obama’s sails. It also raised some legitimate questions about whether the campaign was ready to handle the prime-time balancing act required in navigating the domestic and international politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So here we go again: Now the Obama campaign is facing yet another key moment with Jewish voters. And again it comes on the heels of a poll – this one commissioned by J Street, the fledgling left-wing Middle East advocacy group – showing Obama stuck at about 60 percent.

With that in mind, here are a few things to watch during Obama’s day in Israel and the West Bank, which is scheduled to include visits with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad.

MESSAGE: The challenge is for Obama to reassure AIPAC types about his commitment to Israel’s security, without angering his base, which sees the Democratic nominee as someone willing to break from President Bush’s neocon foreign policy. Already feeling testy following Obama’s vote in favor of the FISA bill, many of his most enthusiastic supporters will not take well to an AIPAC-sounding Obama in Israel.

So does Obama focus on the need for an end to Palestinian violence? Israeli settlements and restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank? The goal of achieving a Palestinian state? Will Obama and his advisers be sure to avoid additional poor phrasings?

JERUSALEM: Representatives of Orthodox and right-wing organizations are holding a press conference and a rally in Jerusalem Tuesday night, during which organizers say they will ask for clarification on Obama’s views on Jerusalem. Organizers say they were spooked by Obama’s comment to Fareed Zakaria that the Clinton parameters from 2000 – which included the idea of assigning the Israelis and the Palestinians control over different parts of Jerusalem – “provides a starting point for discussions between the parties.” Obama did go on to stress that the “parties are going to have to negotiate these issues on their own, with the strong engagement of the United States.” The “let the parties decide” position puts him in the same boat as McCain, but if Obama sticks to the idea that Clinton’s proposal is a good starting point, then he can expect some pushback from some Jewish and Israeli corners.

DENNIS ROSS: The Republican Jewish Coalition took aim at Obama when it mistakenly thought that he was bringing Chuck Hagel with him to Israel, noting that Joe Lieberman was McCain’s wing man during his trip in May to the Jewish state.

Well, as Time noted, Obama is bringing Dennis Ross with him to Israel. In Ross, Obama has a tour guide with more hands-on experience in dealing with Israeli and Palestinian leaders than Lieberman, and possibly commands more respect across a wider range of the political spectrum. Ross is a longtime proponent of an active U.S. peacemaking role with ties to the think tank most associated with AIPAC and has logged time as a commentator for FOX News (and unlike the liberals who get brought on to serve as a punching bag, Ross is often on by himself, and the hosts seem to listen to him). The Jewish Agency for Israel tapped Ross to chair its think tank about the future of the Jewish people.

In short, it’s hard to imagine a better person for Obama to hang out with in Israel if the goal is to say, “Yeah, I’m for a two-state solution – but relax, I come to it from the pro-Israel perspective, not the Mearsheimer-Walt worldview.”

MAHMOUD ABBAS and SALAAM FAYYAD: The meetings with Palestinian leaders could prove to be the most challenging part of the trip, at least politically. Never mind that Bush has repeatedly made clear that Abbas and Fayyad are his guys, or that McCain says he shares the president’s positive view of them – conservatives will be waiting to pounce on any word or image suggesting that Obama is at home with Palestinians.

At the same time Obama, like Bush and McCain, believes the U.S. should be doing whatever it can to help Fatah in its struggle with Hamas. So how does he manage to signal strong support for Abbas and Fayyad without providing too much ammo to Republican Jewish Coalition and the right-wing blogosphere. Another wrinkle: The Abbas meeting comes as the P.A. leader is facing criticism from the U.S. State Department for reportedly congratulating comes amid reports that he congratulated Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar on his release from an Israeli prison. (It doesn’t help Obama in some circles that McCain passed on meetings with Palestinian leaders during his May trip, though he made a point of praising Abbas.)

EHUD OLMERT: Last year, the Israeli prime minister ruffled some Democratic feathers at the AIPAC conference by overtly siding with Bush on the Iraq war. During his speech at this year’s gathering, he made several on-the-fly departures from his prepared text, all seemingly aimed at striking a more bipartisan tone than he did the year before.

With Obama ahead in the polls, and Israel in need of U.S. leadership on Iran, will Olmert continue to do a better job of hedging his (and by extension his country’s) bets? The Democratic candidate doesn’t need Olmert to undercut Bush and McCain, as the Iraqi prime minister did Tuesday by essentially endorsing Obama’s idea of a timetable for a withdrawal of American troops. Just a decent photo op without any grumblings about Obama from unnamed sources in the Prime Minister’s Office could provide a boost.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Bibi, the Likud opposition leader, has never been shy about making common cause with neocons and Christian conservatives (ask Bill Clinton). And Obama has objected to the “strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel.”

Netanyahu and Obama are a sharp contrast in styles and worldviews. Polls suggest that come next year they will be leading their respective countries, so now would be a good time to start playing nice – or to start positioning for the upper hand in what could prove to be a bumpy relationship.

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