Senator Barack Obama will be travelling to Israel and the Palestinian Authority next week to meet Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem, and President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. He will be well received by both sides, but the parties will be confused by the comments he made regarding the fate of Jerusalem and his overall approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
It is hard really to know what Senator Barack Obama wanted to achieve when he spoke last month at the America Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference. He definitely wanted to prove to the 5,000 delegates that he will be a good president for Israel, and a friendly one. This has been his goal for quite a while, and to some degree he even succeeded.
He was well received in this Aipac speech, the morning after clinching the nomination. And then, in just one sentence, he seemed to go overboard: “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,” the Illinois senator said. “Undivided!” Not even George W Bush, a great friend (at least in the eyes of Israelis), committed himself to such a position. Could Mr Obama really mean that?
The answer was quite obvious — and this week Mr Obama made it official: no, he did not. Certainly not in the way some angry Palestinians and delusional Israelis interpreted his words.
“The truth is,” Mr Obama said in an interview this week, “that this was an example where we had some poor phrasing in the speech.” What he meant to say was “that we don’t want barbed wire running through Jerusalem, similar to the way it was prior to the ’67 war, that it is possible for us to create a Jerusalem that is cohesive and coherent”.
Thus, just a week ahead of a celebrated trip to Jerusalem, the headlines are in the mode of: “Obama backtracks on undivided Jerusalem”. Poor phrasing indeed — but also poor timing. Mr Obama got the worst of all possible worlds, enraging both Palestinians and Israelis. That is the price of talking about the most delicate of all delicate issues —
Jerusalem — without thinking first.
However, Mr Obama will be travelling to Israel, to Ramallah as well as Sderot. His presidential rival, Republican John McCain, will be able to claim that when he was in Sderot, it was under the threat of fire — Mr Obama got lucky and will only see it after the ceasefire has taken hold.
Mr Obama does not expect that this trip will change perceptions overnight. A Gallup poll released last week has suggested that most Orthodox Jews will vote for Mr McCain, most other Jews for Mr Obama. Essentially, this poll could not point to any major shift in Jewish public opinion: maybe those voters have already made up their minds.
Investing such huge effort in the Jewish vote does not make much sense. The Obama camp long ago realised that a script in which the tiny Jewish community will be the one to cast the decisive vote is very unlikely to materialise. Thus, one should look at Mr Obama’s courting of the Jewish vote as part of his larger effort to reintroduce himself to the American voters.
Getting the Jewish voters on board is not the goal but rather the tool. If the Jewish community can be convinced that Mr Obama will stand with Israel, then he can claim a small victory. He can show that, with the right approach, and an adequate message, he can win over suspicious voters.