Politics & Government

Israelis, Palestinians look to Obama with hope, skepticism

Senators Obama and Hagel ride with General Petraeus (middle) over Baghdad.
Senators Obama and Hagel ride with General Petraeus (middle) over Baghdad. SSG Lorie Jewell / US Army / MCT

AMMAN, JORDAN — As Barack Obama heads into the world's most complicated region in a bid to establish his foreign-policy credentials as a presidential hopeful, Israelis and Palestinians are voicing a mixture of hope, skepticism and curiosity.

The Illinois Democratic senator, who arrives here Tuesday from visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, has promised a new approach to U.S. diplomacy and a spirit of international healing, and both sides want to see him engage immediately on issues that divide the Middle East.

Many Palestinians worry that Obama will bend over backward in favoring Israel.

Many conservative Israelis worry that the 46-year-old first-term senator with roots in liberal Chicago circles is naive when he talks about peace negotiations. They think he has yet to establish a deep understanding of complex issues, including Iran's ascendance as a regional power.

"There is a general sense of concern in many Israeli circles that the United States is going through a period of reaction to the Iraq war and President Bush's past policies," said Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.

Gidi Grinstein, who spent three years on former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's negotiating team with the Palestinians, said Israelis would ask two questions of Obama: "What are your red lines, and what are you willing to do if those red lines are not met?"

Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian Authority lawmaker, said the United States "is always taking stands that are biased towards Israel" and that Obama made the same mistake in comments last month to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Obama told the pro-Israel lobby in a speech in Washington that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel. It was red meat to the crowd but angered Palestinians, who've eyed East Jerusalem as their future capital.

Then came Obama's subsequent explanation that it was poor phrasing on his part and what he meant was that he never wanted to see the city divided by fences again, and that it was up to the two sides to work out an agreement. That, in turn, turned off conservative Jews.

Barghouti said Obama "represents the best possibility for change in the United States, and I think the United States needs change now more than anytime before." But he implored Obama not to focus too heavily on appealing to conservative Jews in the United States.

"The Jewish vote is not monolithic, and if he takes the right stand he will get all the Muslim votes, all the Arab votes and all the moderate Jewish votes," he said.

Obama is getting advice from some respected Mideast negotiators including Dennis Ross, a former top adviser to successive U.S. administrations, who'll accompany him on the trip.

To be certain, there are Jews in Israel who advocate stepped-up peace negotiations and want a change from Bush.

Some Israelis still bristle, however, at Hamas adviser Ahmed Yousef's comment earlier this year that his militant Palestinian group liked Obama and wanted him to win.

Many Palestinians see Obama as preferable to Republican John McCain and, even if Obama isn't entirely on their side, more likely to re-establish the U.S.'s role as "honest broker" in the region.

McCain didn't meet Palestinians on a visit to Israel last spring, but Obama will see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad in addition to Israeli officials.

In the United States, Jewish, Muslim and Arab voters will be watching how the Middle East responds to Obama's visit.

"He has to do this trip, from a Jewish point of view, to demonstrate a depth of commitment," said Michael Dobkowski, a professor of religious studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in Geneva, N.Y. "But what he says when he's there, and what the press asks him, if he answers, people are going to try to parse those words very carefully. If he doesn't make any mistakes, so to speak, for him I think that would be a victory, because it doesn't leave openings or create more doubt."

Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations recalled how on a recent trip to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, he spoke with a security guard who said that Obama was "good, like me" and pointed to his skin. "He wasn't saying 'like me' about the false allegations that Obama is Muslim, but because he has the same color of skin," Hooper said.

Hooper also said that he thought that Muslims abroad and in the United States shared a perception that Obama would represent a bigger departure than McCain would from the Bush administration's policies, improving Muslims' standing on everything from diplomacy abroad to civil rights at home.

But Hooper said Islamophobia wasn't limited to any one party. He recalled that Obama volunteers recently kept Muslim women in head scarves out of camera range at an Obama rally, something that the campaign later said was a mistake and counter to its policies.

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