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Obama's Signals on Middle East Scrutinized by All Sides

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 2009

Few words are as closely studied as a U.S. president's comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and President Obama this week waded quickly into the issue, naming a special envoy on his second day in office and making expansive comments on the recent war in the Gaza Strip.

Thus far, Obama appears to have hewed closely to the line held by the Bush administration, among the most pro-Israel presidencies in U.S. history. But he appeared to show greater empathy for the plight of the Palestinians and offered an unusually detailed outline for securing the recent Gaza cease-fire.

He also named as his envoy former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), who was seen as evenhanded by both sides when he headed a fact-finding commission in 2000-2001.

Nadia Hijab, senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington, said the "choice of Mitchell sends a clear signal that the United States is going to be back to being an honest broker and will move away from being Israel's lawyer."

During the campaign, Obama was viewed with suspicion by some Jewish groups, so he took pains to repeatedly emphasize his strong support of Israel and its need for security. But, in an unguarded moment captured on tape during a private gathering in Cleveland a year ago, Obama challenged Jewish groups to allow for greater debate on Israeli actions.

"This is where I get to be honest, and I hope I'm not out of school here," Obama said in a transcript published by JTA, a respected news service on Jewish issues. "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, and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we're not going to make progress."

Obama added, "One of the things that struck me when I went to Israel was how much more open the debate was around these issues in Israel than they are sometimes here in the United States. It's very ironic."

In his remarks at the State Department, however, Obama did not veer too far from what had been Bush administration orthodoxy. He restated three conditions that the Islamist movement Hamas -- which controls Gaza -- must meet before it can be accepted as a diplomatic partner, even though Mitchell in 2007 co-wrote an editorial saying that "sometimes it's hard to stop a war if you don't talk to those who are involved in it."

Obama, to the delight of Israeli officials and Jewish groups, also did not mention Israeli settlement expansion in Palestinian territories, which Palestinians see as a roadblock to peace.

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, is not pleased with the Mitchell appointment because he believed Mitchell's 2001 report appeared to equate settlement expansion to Palestinian violence. But he said Obama's remarks were appropriate. "I don't read anything in these comments" that is different than what he publicly said on the campaign trail, he said.

Still, Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, was struck by language that he felt conveyed "genuine empathy for the Palestinian predicament and for Palestinian dignity," because Obama addressed "the suffering of Palestinian civilians as an issue in its own right rather than as a derivative of Hamas behavior." Levy cited, as a contrast, a long list of statements by then-President George W. Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, that repeatedly blamed Hamas for Palestinian suffering.

Levy said that with an Israeli election set in February, Obama is unlikely to tip his hand on the evolving U.S. policy toward the region. After the election, he said, "the first thing they might do is get tough on settlements."

New polls show the right-wing Likud party in position to win the most seats in the Israeli parliament, but Levy said paradoxically that might make it easier for Obama to put pressure on the Israeli government. A left-center government claiming to be eager to make peace usually wins a pass from U.S. presidents on settlements, while right-wing governments resistant to negotiations do not, he said.

In an interview from Jerusalem, Diana Bhutto, a former Palestinian Authority adviser, was pleased by the Mitchell appointment but said she found Obama's comments on the Palestinians wanting.

Obama said that "a future without hope for the Palestinians" is "intolerable." Bhutto said she was disappointed that he spoke of "hope" rather than "freedom," which she said would have made it clear the Palestinians are under occupation. Other oppressed peoples are always promised freedom by American officials, she said, "but Palestinians only get 'hope.' "

For the moment, experts say, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will need to focus on rebuilding Gaza and reopening it to trade and commerce, while at the same time trying to bolster Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader who was weakened by the fighting in Gaza. Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator and author of "The Much Too Promised Land," said options are limited for dramatic changes in policy now, such as seeking to begin contacts with Hamas.

In the wake of the violence in Gaza, however, patience is running out in the Arab world. Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, former ambassador to the United States, published a sharply worded article in the Financial Times yesterday, warning that U.S.-Saudi relations were at risk over what he called the "butchery in Gaza" and the "sickening legacy" of the Bush administration.

Obama called Saudi King Abdullah yesterday and "underscored the importance of a strong U.S.-Saudi relationship," the White House said.

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