Obama's whirlwind visit

Most US voters don't much know or care about the candidates' foreign policy stances.

obama at kotel wall 224. (photo credit: )
obama at kotel wall 224.
(photo credit: )
Barack Obama might have looked exhaustedly around this morning and said, "If it's Friday, this must be Paris." The freshman senator from Illinois and presumptive Democratic presidential candidate is on a week-long international tour to bolster his foreign policy credentials. It has already taken him to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Germany and France. It winds up tomorrow in Britain. Obama is immensely popular outside the US. A recent Pew Global survey found that if French voters could decide the outcome of the elections, he would trounce the presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona, 84-33 percent. By contrast, Israelis would favor McCain over Obama 36-27 percent. In America, where it matters, Obama leads McCain by about 5 percentage points. Roughly 65% of US Jews say they plan to vote for him. Most US voters don't much know or care about the candidates' foreign policy stances. They care about the economy and are more interested in news about forest fires in California than Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. With a Republican administration taking baby steps toward a diplomatic dialogue with Teheran, and Obama "refining" his commitment to withdraw from Iraq within 16 months of his election, it's mostly policy wonks focusing on the international issues that divide the candidates. It was obligatory for Obama to demonstrate that he can operate confidently on the world stage, but - barring dramatic developments between now and November - Campaign 2008 will not be decided on foreign policy. WE ISRAELIS sometimes allow ourselves to imagine that a candidate's stance regarding Israel's security influences presidential elections. That's because who will next sit in the White House matters greatly to us. Thus, from the moment he arrived late on Tuesday night until his departure early Thursday morning, Obama's words and actions were minutely scrutinized. He graciously granted this newspaper an interview, in which he made clear his awareness that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons would pose an existential threat to Israel, destabilize the region and undermine America's global interests. On the question of the fate of Jerusalem, though, he was confusing. He wants Jerusalem to be Israel's capital and he wants the parties to work things out for themselves. That led us to ask where he stood on borders. All US administrations since 1967 have pushed Israel to trade land for peace and opposed Jewish settlement in the West Bank. However, on April 14, 2004, President George W. Bush wrote to prime minister Ariel Sharon: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the Armistice Lines of 1949..." We asked Obama whether he too could live with the "67-plus" paradigm. His response: "Israel may seek '67-plus' and justify it in terms of the buffer that they need for security purposes. They've got to consider whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of the other party." Without that "buffer," the strategic ridges of the West Bank that overlook metropolitan Tel Aviv and the country's main airport would be in Palestinian hands. Eighteen kilometers - or 11 miles - would separate "Palestine" from the Mediterranean, the narrow, vulnerable coastal strip along which much of Israel's population lives. While Obama promises to dedicate himself, from the "first minute" of his presidency, to solving the conflict, his apparent sanguinity over an Israel shrunk into the 1949 Armistice Lines is troubling. Half the Palestinian polity is today in the clutches of the Islamist rejectionists in Gaza. If the IDF precipitously withdrew, the other half, ruled by the "moderate" Ramallah-based leadership, would quickly fall under Islamist control. And that is something no American president would desire. Obama's position on territorial compromise, in part, may be a consequence of Israel's abiding inability to achieve a consensual position regarding those areas of Judea and Samaria it feels must be retained under any peace accord, and then to assiduously explain that position internationally. But he sounded surprisingly definitive in his outlook on this immensely sensitive issue - more so, indeed, than did McCain when we interviewed him in March - even though he was making only his second visit to Israel. He owes it to Israelis and Palestinians - and to himself - to return here for a deeper look.