Barack's Pilgrimage

Sometime in the weeks ahead, Jerusalem will receive the latest in a long line of American political pilgrims -- Barack Obama. Obama's entire overseas swing will be a tightrope act -- necessary, but unforgiving of a single stumble. Nowhere will the contradictory purposes of the trip be more constricting than in Israel. The visit he should actually make to prepare for the presidency is impossible. But it's worth imagining, if only as a yardstick to measure what politics allows him to do.

By the strange rules of the current campaign, the candidate who got it right on Iraq must defend his understanding of the world against the one who got it wrong. So in Europe and the Middle East Obama will meet national leaders. He'll seek to inspire enthusiastic comments from them, demonstrating he can improve relations frazzled by George W. Bush. At press conferences, he'll need to speak professorially -- showing he arrived knowledgeable and quickly gained new insights. An Obama gaffe will echo for much longer than John McCain's bizarre remark in Amman in March that Shi'ite Iran was supporting the Sunni al-Qaeda. An Obama mistake will confirm the campaign narrative that he is a naïf abroad.

In Jerusalem, Obama has another task -- shoring up support among voters who question his pro-Israel credentials. This is hardly the Jewish vote as a whole. Rather, it is the subset that falsely conflates "pro-Israel" with supporting the hawkish side of the Israeli political spectrum. Trying to satisfy those voters while demonstrating a fresh, diplomacy-based foreign policy increases the chances of a slip-up. Repeating his comment at AIPAC's June conference that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided" would incense Palestinians and undercut any claim to trust from both sides in the conflict. Stating more clearly that he means "physically undivided," with political arrangements to be worked out in negotiations -- as his advisers explained after the AIPAC speech -- won't help with the voters he wants to reassure.

Besides those constraints are the practical ones. Protocol forces a visiting political figure to spend his time with top officials, providing a terribly restrictive view of a country. Even if Obama wanted to emulate the legendary Arab ruler Harun al-Rashid, who slipped away from his palace dressed as a commoner to learn what was really happening, the Secret Service and its Israeli counterparts would keep him a prisoner of security arrangements. The pilgrimage that would really help Obama to understand what he needs to do as president consists of the inexpedient, the unlikely and the impossible.

Start with the inexpedient: Obama should visit Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad. Symbolically, the stopover would show Obama respects the Palestinians and can talk to both sides. Practically, he should take a measure of both men -- for instance, of how they react to questions about the right of return for Palestinian refugees, a major stumbling block in negotiations. Would they hint at willingness to make concessions as a deal approaches? Obama would leave Ramallah knowing more. Yet in planning his itinerary, he may give greater weight to Florida's electoral votes.

Obama will be hosted by the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, the de facto American diplomatic representation to the West Bank. There, let's hope, he'll be briefed by the diplomats involved in the recent, belated effort to monitor Israeli and Palestinian compliance with the U.S.-backed "road map" for peace. If so, he'll hear that the Palestinian Authority has been making progress on reimposing control of Palestinian cities and preventing terrorism. Yet, contrary to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's admonitions, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has not ordered his bureaucracy to freeze settlement building in accordance with the road map. Rather, Israel has accelerated construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank since the Annapolis peace conference last fall.

From this, Obama can take two lessons valuable to a president but worthless for a candidate. When an American administration is divided against itself, the secretary of state's faction fighting the vice president's, there's little chance of a foreign government taking America seriously. And consistently, weak American diplomatic initiatives stimulate pro-settlement officials in the Israeli administration to work overtime to "create facts" before borders are drawn. The diplomatic effort fades away; the houses remain as an obstacle for the next peace initiative. Given the critique of Israeli actions inherent in these conclusions, the briefing will go unmentioned in campaign speeches.

But much better for studying the settlement issue, and far less likely to happen, would be a trip into the field with a consulate staffer, or perhaps with Hagit Ofran, head of Peace Now's Settlement Watch. Were she to guide Obama, Ofran told me, she might take him out to Ariel, one of the largest Israeli communities in occupied territory. Israeli officials refer to Ariel as one of the "settlement blocs" -- areas with large Israeli populations, purportedly close to the pre-1967 Green Line border, that must remain in Israeli hands in a final-status agreement. Driving 15 kilometers from the Green Line to reach Ariel would provide a visceral sense of how annexing the settlement to Israel would slice a Palestinian state in two.

In the past, Israeli officials have cited Bush's April 2004 letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to prove that the U.S. is willing to accept that the the settlement blocs will remain in Israeli hands. "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers," Bush wrote, it would be "unrealistic" to expect a return to the Green Line. The visit to Ariel would indicate how unrealistic it would be to draw borders to fit the settlements, how irresponsible Bush's words were. Ariel's continued growth would underline the need to press for peace from the beginning of his term, not the end. Given the sensitivity of the issue, Obama might need to take the trip incognito.

But assuming he manages to slip away, Harun al-Rashid style, from his handlers, I'd suggest that Obama should spend an hour or so at a West Jerusalem café and an East Jerusalem restaurant, chatting up locals like a curious tourist. The common denominator that he would hear in those conversations would be exhaustion from the conflict and a disappointment with politics deeper than any he has heard in America. On both sides of the city he would find that after the collapse of the Oslo process, after the violence, after the Gaza pullout, people despair of the ability of leaders to bring change. They despair of the very possibility of leadership. That melancholy is primarily the fault of Arafat and Sharon, of Olmert and Abbas and all their rivals, but Bush has contributed as well.

Between the coffee shops, he could take a long ride with a Jerusalem cabbie or two, Jewish and Palestinian. For the latter, I'll happily give him the cell phone number of Salman, who just this week drove me from my neighborhood in Jewish Jerusalem across the Green Line to Sur Bahir, an area annexed with East Jerusalem in 1967. In the Palestinian neighborhood, Salman showed me the soccer field a dirt rectangle that becomes mud in the winter rainy season. He drove on to a park in East Talpiot, a Jewish neighborhood straddling the Green Line built after 1967. The soccer pitch and basketball court are paved. He pointed to the changing rooms on one side and to the lights for night play. On the way to pick me up, Salman got a $75 traffic ticket for not having his shoulder belt over his shoulder. The real offense, he was sure, was driving while Arab. He could be wrong, but the mood matters. It's the divider already running through undivided Jerusalem.

From this pilgrimage, I expect, Obama would return more troubled, and more driven to renew peace efforts, and more aware of how dangerous it would be to begin and not press forward. He would come ready to speak with deeper passion about the Middle East. But the things he would have to say would not help him win Florida. And besides, this pilgrimage is impossible.

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