36 Hours In Israel (With Barack Obama)

It was the most choreographed of visits: Two nights and one day in Israel, seemingly designed by the kind of tour guide interested only in providing his charges with the ultimate number of snapshot opportunities at clichéd places -- from Obama wearing a white skullcap at Yad Vashem,to Obama at the Western Wall, in a white skullcap. There were no leaks while Barack Obama was in Israel, no drama, no gaffes -- to the disappointment of a vast media contingent intent only on bringing home gaffes as souvenirs -- and precious little sleep. At his press conference in the rocket-scarred southern Israeli town of Sderot, Obama's syntax meandered; in a conversation with Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama said, "I could fall asleep standing up." Nonetheless, he did not refer to the Iran-Israel border.

At first glance, the Israel stop in the Obama world tour was also carefully devoid of content. Yet besides the stash of photos for Florida campaign ads and the carefully banal comments about Israeli security, the visit did provide some scraps of political meaning. They, too, are available for later use, perhaps as campaign talking points aimed at voters actually concerned with policy. Some notes from the journey:

The Bulldozer and the Negotiating Table: A few hours before Obama arrived at Jerusalem's King David Hotel on Tuesday, a Palestinian bulldozer driver turned his construction vehicle into a weapon of terror, attacking civilians just a few hundred meters from the hotel. One Israeli was seriously injured, and others were lightly wounded, before a policeman and a bystander shot and killed the driver. When I saw TV crews on King David Street that afternoon, I wasn't sure whether they were wrapping up the terror incident or previewing the Obama visit.

Tuesday's rampage was a copycat attack: On July 2, another Palestinian construction worker used his bulldozer to kill three people in downtown Jerusalem. Both drivers were from Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem, inside the security wall that Israel has built around the ostensibly united city in order to keep out terrorists from the West Bank. Both apparently acted on their on: Going postal, but politically.

Obama arrived in Jerusalem from Amman, after a press conference in which he promised to start work on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks "starting from the minute I'm sworn into office." Speaking to journalists in Sderot, he stressed that Israeli security depends on peace.

What he didn't say is that the Jerusalem bulldozer attack is the best proof of that principle. No military or intelligence measure can keep an individual Palestinian from translating frustration into suicidal fury. There was no terror organization for the Shin Bet security agency to penetrate. A wall around Jerusalem did not help, and no one wants a wall through the middle of Jerusalem. The only way to prevent this kind of terror is to give Palestinians, as a community, reason to believe that the conditions under which they live will change in the short term, in the easily imaginable term. A re-energized diplomatic process aimed at a two-state solution is therefore essential to the safety of Israelis walking down King David Street. Obama didn't say this, either because he was sleep-deprived or because he was politically wary. But it is the message he could bring home from Jerusalem.

Hamas Walks It Back: On Wednesday morning, Israel Radio reported responses to Obama's arrival, including this one: "A Hamas spokesman said, 'The American senator is trying to reach the White House via Tel Aviv, at the expense of the Palestinians.'"

The immediate meaning of that comment is that John McCain best stop arguing that Hamas has endorsed Obama. In April, McCain leapt on a report that Hamas political adviser Ahmed Yousef had said "actually we like Mr. Obama, and we hope that he will win." McCain's campaign also used the quote in a fundraising appeal. Even if the initial report was accurate, Obama has since succeeded in changing Hamas's mind.

The slightly deeper significance of the spokesman's criticism is that Hamas, typically for a hardline group, thinks in zero-sum terms. Perhaps believing Obama's domestic critics, Hamas originally thought he had a low commitment to Israel, and was therefore pro-Palestinian. McCain was happy to use Hamas as character witness. Now the movement has see-sawed the opposite way: Obama is pro-Israel, and thus bad for Palestinians.

But in promising a new diplomatic direction, Obama is arguing that Israeli-Palestinian peace is win-win. Even the more pragmatic elements in Hamas don't yet speak this language. So Hamas is no character witness, for or against Obama. McCain's real error was treating the organization's judgment as relevant.

Heir Apparent: John McCain came to Israel in March. I had to google the date. Colleagues couldn't remember it, nor could I. It barely registered on the political Richter Scale.

Obama was treated not as a candidate, but as heir apparent -- as crown prince of an empire with an ill and absent emperor. On Wednesday morning, Obama breakfasted with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, head of the Labor party. Originally, Obama was supposed to travel to Sderot with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Barak insisted it was his prerogative, since the trip would deal with security issues. Livni graciously agreed to share her time with Prince Obama.

Livni is the number two figure in the ruling Kadima party. With Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the target of converging corruption scandals, the party is expected to hold a leadership vote in September. That might lead to a Livni-led government, or to national elections in which she'd face off against Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, now head of the rightwing Likud opposition.

Netanyahu also met with Obama. Asked afterward in a radio interview who he preferred to see as U.S. president, Netanyahu said he wouldn't get involved in U.S. politics. He did say that he'd met McCain once, and this was his second meeting with Obama, and that they were equally devoted to Israel.

At a minimum, Israeli politicians showed they can read American polls. Livni, Barak and Netanyahu each imagine visiting the Oval Office as prime minister and do not want to slight Obama beforehand. But all three went well beyond being correct. They appeared eager to share Obama's glow. They wanted photos to use in their own as-yet-unscheduled campaigns. While the American media continues to ask whether Obama is sufficiently pro-Israel to win in Miami, Israeli politicians are already trying to ride his coattails with their own public.

Removing the Roadblock: On Wednesday evening, Obama dined with Olmert. Beforehand, a news report cited "a senior Jerusalem official" as saying the prime minister would "emphasize his desire for U.S. involvement in the Syria-Israel negotiations, with an eye toward advancing them and turning them into direct, bilateral talks." Olmert would "point out to Obama [how] the negotiations can contribute to U.S. interests."

At the moment, talks with Syria are indirect, mediated by Turkey. Even those talks show the Bush Administration's fading influence in Jerusalem. But the administration's resistance to diplomacy with Damascus is still a roadblock: Syria wants a peace deal to include an opening to the United States.

Put aside Olmert's amazing optimism in believing that he'll still be in office, dickering with Damascus, come next January 20. The leak from his immediate vicinity suggests that he is tired of Bush's obstructionism, that he's hoping for a new policy in Washington. He, too, wants change.

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