Obama must walk fine line in Middle East

July 18th, 2008 - 10:26 am ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Barack Obama
By Mike McCarthy
Washington, July 18 (DPA) US presidential hopeful Barack Obama is expected to head to the Middle East shortly seeking to show foreigners that he’s the candidate of change, which is what he has been telling Americans already for months. Obama, 46, is planning his first trip abroad since wrapping up the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and after nearly eight years of President George W Bush’s unpopular policies, a message of change is just what foreign audience want to hear.

Obama’s campaign has been quiet about the pending journey for security reasons, but he will reportedly go to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and the West Bank, along with stops in Germany, France and Britain.

The trip is designed to bolster his foreign policy credentials and combat the perception that his Republican opponent, John McCain, is more seasoned on national security and military issues.

Obama, who will become the first black presidential nominee of a major US political party, has captivated the international community and made the presidential campaign the most watched globally in recent history.

He will face a number of challenges in Israel and the West Bank, where his every word on the peace process or a final settlement will be analyzed, and he will need to guard himself against anything that will alienate the pro-Israel voting block back home.

“It’s a very tricky road for him to follow here,” said Graeme Bannerman, a Middle East policy expert and former State Department official. “It’s just very tricky.”

Israeli policymakers could be the least excited in the Middle East about the possibility of change. Under Bush, Israel has enjoyed an unprecedented level of support.

Israelis have been uneasy about Obama, due to perceptions that he is sympathetic to the Palestinian plight of decades under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and his stated willingness to hold high-level talks with the Iranian regime, Bannerman said.

Obama will need to show his commitment to Israeli security while convincing the Arab states that he can be a fair broker in the peace process, said Bannerman, now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“He will have to sound as supportive to Israel as possible but not make commitments on specific policies,” he said.

Despite his popularity overseas and the desire of many abroad to anoint him as the next president, Obama still faces a tough campaign against McCain, in whom US voters have more confidence , according to recent opinion polls.

Obama, however, leads McCain overall in national polls by margins ranging from four to eight percentage points, a far from insurmountable gap with more than three months left before the Nov 4 election.

Steven Riskin, a Middle East scholar at the US Institute of Peace, a non-partisan, congressionally funded think tank, said that Obama will be well received in the region because of his commitment to resolving differences diplomatically and de-emphasis on military, compared to Bush.

“The reception in the (Middle East) is going to be generally favourable because, at least in his early speeches, he represents a different approach and orientation to statecraft than the current administration,” Riskin said.

Obama irked the Palestinians last month when he told a Jewish lobbying group in the US that Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of Israel - a break with US policy, which calls for the city’s status to be resolved through negotations.

Obama later backed off that remark, falling back to the long-standing US position.

What Obama has not backed off is his willingness to meet the leaders of Iran, embracing the need to talk to enemies. His stance has fuelled criticism from right-wing critics who say that discussions would only embolden the Islamic state, suspected of sponsoring terrorism and pursuing nuclear weapons.

Some of that criticism might fade because the Bush administration announced Wednesday that it was departing from a long-standing policy by sending a senior diplomat to attend European Union talks with Iran, hoping to break a stalemate in the effort to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

The encounter will be the highest level US meeting with Iran since the 1979 revolution and subsequent storming of the US embassy in Tehran.

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