Obama to 'Post': I'll back Syria talks

Democratic candidate's statements contrast with tepid reception offered by Bush administration.

obama 88 (photo credit:)
obama 88
(photo credit: )
Leading Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama told The Jerusalem Post that he would fully back Israel's peace talks with Syria and criticized efforts to block such engagement. "I am encouraged that Israel and Syria have renewed peace talks and fully support Israel's efforts to advance peace with all its neighbors," he said in statement e-mailed to the Post. "I have consistently said that the United States must stand ready to help Israel achieve peace with its neighbors and should not block Israel from the negotiating table, nor force it to negotiate." His statements emphatically welcoming Wednesday's surprise announcement of Israeli-Syrian talks contrasted with the reception offered by Bush administration officials, who provided a tepid response and noted the US was not involved in the ongoing indirect contacts, which are being brokered by Turkey. The campaign of presumptive Republican nominee John McCain offered a reaction more in line with that of the current White House occupants, though emphasizing Israel's independence as Obama did. "Senator McCain's view is that the sovereign government of Israel should be free to make its own decisions on how best to defend Israel and whether to engage in negotiations," said Randy Scheunemann, the campaign's director of foreign policy and national security, who wouldn't comment on the potential for an American role in the talks. The campaign of Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton, though, stressed the need for America to support Israel's diplomatic overtures. "It is incumbent on the United States to support Israel in its efforts to make peace with its Arab neighbors. It is in America's strategic interest to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and it's a fulfillment of our commitment to Israel's security and well-being, living in peace with its neighbors," said Lee Feinstein, the campaign's director of national security. "As Hillary Clinton has said before, when she is president, she will, once again, make working to resolve conflict in the Middle East a priority." With US President George W. Bush's final year in office nearly half over, the views of those vying to replace him take on increasing relevance when it comes to hammering out a peace deal in a dispute few observers believe can be solved by the end of Bush's term. Many Middle East experts argue that a deal with Syria, if one is even possible, would require intensive American involvement since in exchange for peace with Israel, Syria would demand openings - and concessions - from the US. The Bush administration, though, has suggested that Syria is not serious about taking the steps necessary for peace - pointing to its ongoing support for terrorism and growing ties with Iran - and that high-profile talks only boost a rogue regime. The president made that point forcefully in a speech before the Knesset during his trip to Israel last week to celebrate the state's 60th birthday, sparking a political row in the US. "Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along," Bush said, calling it a "false comfort of appeasement." Obama and other prominent Democrats seized on the speech as a political attack on his candidacy and used it as an opportunity to attack Bush's policies, as well as McCain's. Obama asserted that the US needs to "use all elements of American power - including tough, principled, and direct diplomacy - to pressure countries like Iran and Syria." Some political analysts have viewed Israel's announcement of indirect talks with Syria just days after the political controversy of Bush's Knesset remarks as a vindication for Obama's position. "He has said many times that he thinks diplomacy is a very useful tool for achieving our national interests and goals. It's a tool that has been underutilized by this administration," said an Obama campaign adviser. "But he's not citing these developments to prove a point." In his statement to the Post, Obama seemed to be countering Bush's criticism, stressing, "We should have no illusions that success will come easily, as difficult issues like Syria's support of terrorist organizations that threaten Israel must be confronted." The McCain camp pointed out that talks can be more than difficult - they can be pointless. "It's clear that it takes more than just talking and meeting up with countries like Syria to achieve a resolution of differences," someone close to the campaign told the Post, saying that former US secretary of state Warren Christopher "practically had a second home in Damascus" but came up empty-handed.