Obama’s inability to bring Israelis and Palestinians together is especially problematic today, as the Arab Middle East remakes itself and Israel, more isolated than ever, weighs a military strike against Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to head to Israel this week. And Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney is planning to visit later this month, injecting Obama’s record on the Israeli-Palestinian issue into the heart of a fierce campaign.
“I know that many are frustrated by the lack of progress,” Obama said last fall at the U.N. General Assembly. “Peace is hard work.”
Battling Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries, Obama faced long odds contending for Jewish support. His middle name, Hussein, increased the already formidable challenge she posed for the Jewish vote, mostly by raising suspicions about his past and his religious character.
“The bar was higher for him,” said Ben Rhodes, who wrote Obama’s foreign policy speeches during the campaign and is now a deputy national security adviser. “He faced a level of scrutiny — and, frankly, a level of dishonesty in politics — that he had to answer to.”
In February 2008, as the crucial Ohio primary approached, Obama met in Cleveland with about 100 Jewish community leaders, hoping that a candid conversation would dispel some of the concerns rising on the campaign trail.
As a candidate of change, he made clear that he was willing to say things that his predecessors were not.
“I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel,” Obama said, referring to a hawkish Israeli political party that did not recognize a Palestinian right to a state. “That can’t be a measure of our friendship with Israel.”
A little over a year later, Obama was working with the Likud party chief, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was elected Israel’s prime minister for a second time not long after Obama took the oath of office.
The weeks-long war between Israel and armed Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip had been over officially for two days.
But Obama had promised during the campaign that he would begin a push for peace at once, regardless of the regional mood. On his second day in office, he named former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) as his special envoy for Middle East peace.