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Michael Oren: A Tale Of Two Obamas

We asked TNR contributing editor and Israeli historian Michael B. Oren to give us an on-the-ground perspective on Obama's trip to Israel today: 

For a moment, many Israelis held their breath. "It's just one more reminder why we have to work diligently, urgently and in a unified way..." Barack Obama began his first speech in Israel today, referring to the terrorist attack that rocked Jerusalem only hours before his arrival. A candidate widely identified as liberal, one who has spoken of Palestinian pain and who travels with former State Department officials associated with the peace process, might have been expected to end the statement with " strive to achieve peace." But rather than make his hosts cringe with another lecture about the need to redress the root cause of violence and break its cycle, Obama surprised them. "It's just one more reminder why we have to work diligently, urgently and in a unified way ... to fight terror," he said. "There are no excuses."

Obama's reaction to the terrorist attack, and the Israeli's uncertainty about it, indicated the depth of confusion surrounding which Obama they welcomed--the dove or the hawk. In Israel, more than in his previous Middle Eastern whistlestops, the presumptive Democratic contender will have some explaining to do. Obscurity continues to plague his policies on issues critical to the Jewish State as well as to its American supporters.

Obama, to be sure, has seized every occasion to extol Israel as a democratic bastion and America's ally par excellence. He has expressed support for President Bush's ten-year, $30 billion dollar military aid package for Israel and sworn to defend Israel from any Iranian aggression. This 36-hour trip will certainly furnish Obama with numerous opportunities to renew these pledges and to further dispel the vast, cyber-spread disinformation about his pro-Arab bias. "The most important thing for me to share is the historic and special relationship between the United States and Israel," he declared shortly after landing, "one that cannot be broken."

Yet a closer look at Obama's record on Israel reveals some discomfiting inconsistencies. He assured the AIPAC audience that Jerusalem would remain "undivided" under his administration and that he regarded Iran as a dire threat against which he'd maintain a military option. But Obama quickly retracted his Jerusalem statement, saying that the city's status would be subject to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He has assailed Bush's "saber-rattling" on Iran, denying that it was any more threatening than Venezuela and Cuba, and vowed instead to seek a dialogue with Teheran. He has rejected the notion that the Arab-Israeli conflict constituted the core of Middle Eastern upheaval but has also described that dispute as "constant sore" that "infect(s) all of our foreign policy" and "provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists." He has criticized Israeli settlement-building but has never--as of this writing--upbraided the Palestinian Authority for failing to crack down on terror; has reproved American supporters of the Likud Party and yet, this morning, warmly engaged Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Some of these vacillations might be attributed to Obama's inexperience in foreign affairs, but more likely they reflect his difficulty in mollifying interest groups that are often irreconcilable on Israel. American backers of Israel, Jews and non-Jews, largely prefer a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty and unequivocal American opposition to Iran. By contrast, progressive Democrats demand an even-handed Obama supportive of Palestinian claims to Jerusalem and committed to a non-violent approach to Iran. An indication of Obama's dilemma came, curiously, from al-Fatah legislator Kadoura Fares who rebuffed the clarification of the statement to AIPAC on Jerusalem, insisting that "he should have said he recognizes the Palestinian right to freedom."

Obama will nevertheless meet with Palestinian officials in Ramallah--a visit that McCain specifically scorned--and then fly to Sderot, the Israeli town that weathered countless rocket attacks from Gaza. He will meet with Israel's Nobel Peace Prize-winning president Shimon Peres and confer with Israeli security chiefs. He will tour Yad VaShem, the national Holocaust memorial, and be briefed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the current state of Israeli-Syrian talks. His goal will be to show Israelis--and through them, important American constituencies--two different Obamas, the peacemaker and the terror-stopper, the compassionate and the stalwart. Which is the real Obama, however, may well remain unsolved.

--Michael B. Oren