Obama pledges to work for Middle East peace

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The Independent Online

Barack Obama arrived in Jerusalem for a 24-hour visit to Israel and the West Bank after promising he would work for a negotiated breakthrough in the Middle East conflict, "starting from the minute I'm sworn into office".

Before what may prove the toughest and – in a political sense – hazard-strewn visit of his high-octane world tour, Mr Obama implied he wanted to break with the presidential habit of leaving the Israeli-Palestinian issue to a second term.

Having secured Iraqi government backing for his plans for US military withdrawals, signalled his intention to persuade Nato to focus greater military resources on Afghanistan and edged the US administration into more diplomatic contacts with Iran – Israel's No 1 external preoccupation – Mr Obama arrives on a foreign policy roll.

And while he was careful to say in Amman that it was "unrealistic" to expect a US president "to snap his fingers and bring about peace in this region", he indicated he would have to take into account Palestinian hardship as well Israeli security concerns.

Mr Obama said the close alliance with Israel "would not change" but added: "What I think can change is the ability of the United States government and a United States president to be actively engaged with the peace process and to be concerned and recognise the legitimate difficulties that the Palestinian people are experiencing right now."

By the time he leaves early tomorrow Mr Obama will have dined with the beleaguered Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, visited the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial museum (for the second time), met Mr Olmert's three most senior political rivals, as well as President Shimon Peres, and travelled to Ramallah to meet the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

In between he will make a trip, just as his rival John McCain did back in March, to Sderot, the poor immigrant town in southern Israel which was the main target for Qassam rockets from Gaza until the current still-fragile ceasefire with Hamas. Susan Rice, one of his foreign policy advisers, said Mr Obama wanted to visit Sderot because it is a "place in which Israel's security is every day at risk and threatened".

And he will still find time for a visit tonight to the Western Wall, located at the most sacred site in Judaism in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City, generating valuable TV pictures for Jewish voters back home .

Many Israeli leaders might have originally preferred the Democratic nomination to go to Hillary Clinton. She had shown largely uncritical support for Israeli policies, such as the bitterly controversial separation barrier. But their anxiety to meet and be seen with Senator Obama – and their growing belief that he will be the next US President – was underlined by a report spread across the first two pages of Israel's biggest daily newspaper, Yedhiot Ahronot.

It said Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister and Labour leader had managed to persuade the Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to let him join the Israeli airforce helicopter ride to the Negev town. Benjamin Netanyahu, the opposition leader and third pretender to the premiership, will have to be content with a more routine morning meeting with the Democratic nominee.

Mr Obama came to the Democratic primaries with a reputation for more sympathy than most previous presidential hopefuls with the plight of Palestinians under occupation. He has since shored up his pro-Israel credentials, culminating in a surprise declaration that Jerusalem must remain an "un-divided" capital of Israel. This was subsequently "clarified" by an explanation that he was merely saying that the city should not be physically divided by a fence or barrier as it was between 1948 and 1967.

Mr Obama yesterday condemned the bulldozer attack by a Palestinian driver on cars and buses near the Jerusalem hotel in which he will be staying, saying it was, "a reminder of what Israelis have courageously lived with on a daily basis for far too long".

He also alluded obliquely to the problems faced by the government of Mr Olmert, who is currently facing a police investigation into fraud and corruption allegations. "In order to make those compromises you have to have strong support from your people, and the Israeli government right now is unsettled," Mr Obama said. "You know, the Palestinians are divided between Fatah and Hamas." Mr Obama contrasted the circumstances of the former Israeli premier Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat when they signed a peace treaty in 1979.

"Those leaders were in a much stronger position to initiate that kind of peace," he said.

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