Obama Picks the Right Baggage for Visiting Israel

At the airport, before his takeoff for the Middle East, no one will ask Barack Obama if he packed his bags himself. It would be rude, and besides he has a full-time handler for that. He never has the lurching feeling as the cab leaves his house that he left the tickets on the kitchen table and a prescription in the medicine cabinet. Just writing those words, I finally understand the attraction of running for president.

He has, however, made his political baggage himself. Mostly he's done a good job -- better, in fact, than one could expect.

First, he's meeting with Palestinians as well as Israelis. At least according to the Palestinian side, Obama has put a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on his schedule for next Wednesday. When I wrote about his trip a couple of weeks ago, before the requisite leaks of the itinerary, I was afraid he'd decide it was politically inexpedient to make that stop, essential as it is. Symbolically, the Ramallah visit shows that he intends as president to talk to both Israelis and Palestinians, and that he's serious about working for peace. Practically, it gives him the chance to see how Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad respond to tough questions about the compromises they'll need to make.

It would have been easy to skip Ramallah for fearing of losing Jewish votes, especially in swing states like Florida. The common mistake among candidates is to believe the rightwing minority in the U.S. Jewish community that purports to speak for the community as a whole, and that regards any contact with Palestinians as betraying Israel. The incident that Connie Bruck reported in his recent New Yorker piece on zillionaire ideologue Sheldon Adelson is typical:

Adelson berated [former ambassador to Israel Martin] Indyk for hosting "terrorists" like Fayyad, who he said was a founder of Fatah. Indyk [now director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy] is said to have replied that Fayyad was never involved in terrorism and was not a member of Fatah, and that Adelson's problem was really with Olmert, because he dealt with Fayyad. Adelson stood his ground, and declared that the Olmert government was an illegitimate government and should be thrown out.

As a point of principle, Obama's refusal to give into that political reflex shows that he really is committed to peacemaking. Practically, it also makes sense. As James Baker might have advised Obama, "Adelson and his ilk, they'll never vote for you anyway."

On the other hand, as shown by J Street's new poll of American Jewish political views, released yesterday, most Jews are on Obama's side on this as on other issues. Not only do US Jews believe overwhelmingly (90 percent to 10) that America is on the wrong track, not only do they believe (79-21%) that George W. Bush has mishandled Iraq, they believe (71-29%) that Bush has mishandled the Arab-Israeli conflict. Overwhelmingly, they want the U.S. to play a strong role in reaching peace, even if it means publicly stating disagreements with both the Arabs and Israel. By 59-41 percent they favor giving most of the West Bank and dismantling "many" settlements for peace. Obama isn't going to drive away the Jews by showing he's willing to get involved in making peace.

The one hawkish note in the survey was on the question about giving up Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem for peace. Here 44% of US Jews were in favor, 56% against. I don't think that the people who answered in the negative on that question really picture the Arab neighborhoods of Sur Barhir or Beit Hanina, really understand how much of a different world they are from Jewish Jerusalem, how little the two parts of the city have been made into one.

Given Jews' generally dovish views, a politician ready to explain and lead could change the balance on this question. Last year, Hillary Clinton's position paper on Israel, with its promise of an "undivided Jerusalem," suggested that she wasn't that politician. When he addressed the AIPAC Conference in June, Obama also seemed ready to pander, promising that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided." When I criticized that statement, an Obama adviser quickly emailed to tell me the candidate really meant physically undivided: No fences. Political arrangements were a different matter. Obama, he said,

has said before that Jerusalem is a final status issue to be negotiated by the parties, but that two principles that should guide any outcome is that it will remain Israel's capital and it should never be redivided by barbed wire and checkpoints as it was from 1948-67.

Getting ready for his travels, Obama has gotten around to saying the same thing himself on camera:

You know, the truth is that this was an example where we had some poor phrasing in the speech. And we immediately tried to correct the interpretation that was given...

That's flipflopping only if the definition of "flipflopping" includes "saying something dumb to a receptive audience, and then having the sense to correct the mistake." Better that he corrected himself, and will be arriving here with a a reasonable position on Jerusalem packed alongside his shirts and ties.

If there's a flaw in his preparations, it may be that he'll be coming with Dennis Ross in his entourage, and without Rob Malley. (Thanks to Ezra Klein for flagging this.) I respect Ross, and the presence of the veteran negotiator is another signal that Obama wants to get down to work on Mideast peacemaking, as soon as he has gotten done with the pesky election and sent John McCain off for some remedial geography lessons. (Full disclosure: Though I don't know Ross personally, he endorsed my book, The Accidental Empire.)

But Malley, a former Obama adviser, has written an essential account of what went wrong at Camp David eight summers ago, when Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak, and Yasser Arafat were such unhappy campers. In Malley's picture, all three sides mishandled the negotiations. From my own experience with Barak, as I've written, that's also a more believable version than blaming Arafat alone. You can't experience Barak, and not presume that he'd come unprepared, insult his negotiating partners and then blame everyone else. Which is certainly not to let Arafat off the hook.

With only Ross along to explain what's gone wrong so far, there's a a risk that Obama may find his baggage weighted to one side and unwieldy. As prep, he should make a late-night call to Rob Malley. It should include an offer of a business meeting the day after the voters let McCain go quietly back to Arizona.

Cross posted at South Jerusalem.

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