Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) – Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) began his whirlwind tour of Israel on the right foot by condemning the latest terror attack in Jerusalem and backing Israel’s war against terror before he ever arrived.
But Israelis are closely watching to see if he’ll stay on the right track.
“[The] bulldozer attack is a reminder of what Israelis have courageously lived with on a daily basis for far too long,” Obama said at a press conference in Jordan before his arrival late Tuesday in Israel.
Obama is staying at the King David Hotel just 150 feet from the place where a bulldozer driver started his rampage down a Jerusalem street Tuesday, ramming cars, trying to flip a bus and injuring more than 20 people, most of them lightly.
“I strongly condemn this attack and will always support Israel in confronting terrorism and pursuing lasting peace and security,” Obama said.
Israeli leaders and Israel supporters are comparing Obama’s experience in the international arena and security matters to those of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who was warmly welcomed here when he visited four months ago.
In an analysis in the leftwing Israeli daily Ha’aretz on Wednesday, Aluf Benn wrote that of all the visitors Israel has had this year, including President Bush twice, the visit of Obama “has aroused more interest than any of them.”
Obama’s Muslim stepfather, his childhood in Indonesia and his apparent willingness to talk to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have all “raised deep anxieties among the Jewish establishment.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) seems like “the natural choice” to the Israeli establishment because he embodies the Israeli idea of leadership -- “white hair, expression lines and combat experience,” Benn wrote.
Obama, on the other hand, represents what Benn called “an exciting option” but a “more dangerous one.” If he manages to accomplish all he intends on the international front, Israel’s strategic situation “will improve dramatically.” But if not, Israel will “pay the price without reaping any returns,” he wrote.
Dr. Michael Oren from the Shalem Center in Jerusalem said the “best” candidate for Israel depends on what one thinks is best for Israel – “whether one regards settlements as beneficial or disastrous for Israel…or the creation of a Palestinian state as essential or deadly.”
Oren, who examined speeches and statements from the two candidates, released a report earlier this week detailing similarities and differences in the way each man relates to issues in the Middle East.
According to Oren, the most fundamental difference between the two candidates on the Israeli-Palestinian peace question is their perception of the Israeli-Arab conflict and its relationship to other disputes in the Middle East.
Obama holds to the thesis that “Palestine is the root of Middle East upheaval,” while McCain believes that defeating Islamic extremism “is the prerequisite for, rather than the consequence of, Israeli-Palestinian peace.”
McCain has not indicted that he would apply greater pressure on Israel, Oren said.
When McCain was here, he did not visit the West Bank or meet with Palestinian leaders. Obama, however, will travel to Ramallah to meet with P.A. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and P.A. Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad.
In an open letter to Obama published in “The New Republic” over the weekend, Yossi Klein Halevi, also from the Shalem Center, wrote that Israelis are worried that Obama, as president, “might act too hastily in trying to solve the Palestinian problem, and not hastily enough in trying to solve the Iranian problem.”
Iran tops the list of concerns for Israelis.
On the eve of Obama’s visit, Israeli television interviewed Republican John McCain. McCain said he hoped that a military option would not be necessary in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, but he also said the U.S. “can never allow a second Holocaust.”
Obama has said that he, too, would “always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel,” but his declaration that he is willing to speak with the Iranian leadership has made many Israelis nervous.
Hillel Shenker, chairman of the group Democrats Abroad, said Obama’s purpose in traveling here is to show that he is capable of dealing with the issues in the region and establishing the potential for working relationships.
There is “no doubt” that entire Israeli leadership is very interested in meeting with him, Shenker said in a radio interview. “[It] will demonstrate back to the American Jewish community how seriously people take him here,” he said.
But some Israeli commentators have questioned how much Obama can actually absorb in his short visit – just over 24 hours – to Israel and the West Bank.
In one action-packed day, Obama is meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, visiting Yad Vashem, (the Israeli Holocaust Memorial), driving to Ramallah for meetings with Palestinian leaders, meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and flying by helicopter to the southern Israeli city of Sderot, which has been plagued by rocket attacks, and returning to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Alon Pinkas, former Israeli consul-general from New York, said in a television interview he thought that Obama would like to present his stopover in Israel as “a learning experience that strengthens his foreign policy credentials” rather than just one long photo opportunity.
But Pinkas described such tours -- which visiting dignitaries and even American Jews are often subjected to -- as “exercises in futility” after which one doesn’t remember exactly where he’s been or who he’s met.