Obama fires up the Israeli public

By Anshel Pfeffer, July 25, 2008

Senator Barack Obama may or may not be elected the 44th President of the United States in November, but this week in Israel he received a welcome to match that of many heads of state.

The Democratic candidate reciprocated in kind by saying almost everything possible to allay Israeli and Jewish fears of his election.

His visit opened on Tuesday night when he landed at Ben Gurion Airport after a visit to Jordan and immediately condemned that day’s bulldozer attack in Jerusalem, which wounded 24 people. His day in the capital began with breakfast with Defence Minister Ehud Barak, where he said that as president he would personally get involved in the Israel-Syria negotiations, followed by another meeting with opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu.

From there he went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum where he laid a wreath, lit a memorial flame, and wrote in the visitors’ book : “At a time of great peril and torment, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man’s potential for great evil, but also our capacity to rise up from tragedy and remake our world.”

Mr Obama’s next stop was the presidential mansion, to meet Shimon Peres, who gave him a book by Theodor Herzl. Mr Obama, though, said that what he really wanted was the recipe to look as good as his host does at 84.

Israel’s leadership is uneasy with the prospect of Mr Obama in the White House. Some of his past statements on negotiations with Iran, on Syria and Palestinian suffering have caused concern. By according him such a welcome, much more effusive than the one received by the more reassuring Republican candidate John McCain four months ago, “we are hedging our bets,” admitted a senior Israeli diplomat.

After Mr Peres, Mr Obama went to meet another president: the Palestinian one. Visiting Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, he was especially careful not to say anything that might sound uncomfortable to Israeli ears.

From there he took a helicopter ride with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to Sderot, where he chose to conduct his press conference. He promised never to force Israel to make concessions that would put the state in danger, and said that Iran having nuclear weapons would be a “game-changing” situation. He also visited the Amar family, whose home was destroyed by a Kassam, and met with Oshri Twito, who lost a leg in a missile attack.

From there it was back to dinner with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and, for a finishing flourish, a visit to the Western Wall before heading back to Ben Gurion airport.

Last updated: 5:35pm, July 24 2008