Posted on December 17, 2008 in Washington Watch

Given the current disarray plaguing the Israeli-Palestinian arena, resolution of this conflict will, no doubt, present President-elect Barack Obama with one of his greatest foreign policy challenges.

Candidates for the Oval Office usually make an effort to avoid addressing this issue during their campaigns (other than to offer platitudes to Israel and vague promises of peace). Not so for Barack Obama. Recognizing the unique challenge he faced in this contest, Obama made repeated efforts to assure Jewish audiences of his commitment to Israel – a sine qua non for any U.S. president. But before Arab audiences give way to cynicism, the complete record of Obama’s statements – not just his oft-cited misstatement on Jerusalem – warrants examination, revealing, as it does, a richly nuanced understanding of Middle East complexities.

What follows are some representative selections of President-elect Obama’s statements about Israel and the search for an Israeli-Palestinian peace:

• Before AIPAC (March 2, 2007): “Our job is to do more than lay out another road map; our job is to rebuild the road to real peace and lasting security throughout the region. …We can and we should help Israelis and Palestinians both fulfill their national goals: two states living side by side in peace and security. Both the Israeli and Palestinian people have suffered from the failure to achieve this goal. The United States should leave no stone unturned in working to make that goal a reality. …Diplomacy in the Middle East cannot be done on the cheap. Diplomacy is measured by patience and effort. We cannot continue to have trips consisting of little more than photo-ops with little movement in between.”

• To a Jewish audience in Cleveland (February 23, 2008), “There is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel . If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress. Frankly some of the commentary that I’ve seen which suggests guilt by association or the notion that unless we are never ever going to ask any difficult questions about how we move peace forward or secure Israel that is non military or non belligerent or doesn’t talk about just crushing the opposition, that that somehow is being soft or anti-Israel, I think we’re going to have problems moving forward.”

• JTA interview (April 10, 2008), [Obama was asked whether he sided with the camp that felt the U.S.-relationship with Israel was paramount, or the camp that argued that Israel was a source of problems for the US]. “I don’t consider myself in any camp but the common sense camp. It is dangerously simplistic to think that our only options with respect to U.S. foreign policy are to be unquestioning in our approach to Israeli-Palestinian relations or alternatively fail to recognize the special relationship and the historic friendship and bonds that exist between the United States and Israel.” The U.S. role “requires listening to both sides. That requires that we don’t dismiss out of hand the concerns of Palestinians because there’s no way we can move forward in those negotiations without at least understanding their perspective. …It is important if we’re going to make progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks that both sides are held accountable to previous agreements.”

• Interview, The Atlantic Magazine (May 12 2008), [Asked if Israel was a drag on the international reputation of the U.S]. “No, no, no. But what I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy. The lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national-security interest in solving this, and I also believe that Israel has a security interest in solving this [conflict] because I believe that the status quo is unsustainable. I am absolutely convinced of that, and some of the tensions that might arise between me and some of the more hawkish elements in the Jewish community in the United States might stem from the fact that I’m not going to blindly adhere to whatever the most hawkish position is just because that’s the safest ground politically. I want to solve the problem, and so my job in being a friend to Israel is partly to hold up a mirror and tell the truth and say if Israel is building settlements without any regard to the effects that this has on the peace process, then we’re going to be stuck in the same status quo that we’ve been stuck in for decades now.”

• Before AIPAC (June 4, 2008), “Across the political spectrum, Israelis understand that real security can only come through lasting peace. And that is why we – as friends of Israel – must resolve to do all we can to help Israel and its neighbors to achieve it. Because a secure, lasting peace is in Israel ’s national interest. It is in America ’s national interest. And it is in the interest of the Palestinian people and the Arab world. ...I won’t wait until the waning days of my presidency. I will take an active role, and make a personal commitment to do all I can to advance the cause of peace from the start of my Administration.”

• Amman, Jordon (June 23, 2008), “What a U.S. President can do is apply sustained energy and focus on the issues of the Israelis and the Palestinians. And I do believe that an ultimate resolution is going to involve two states living side by side in peace and security, and that [both sides] are going to both have to make compromises in order to arrive at that two-state solution. Now, one of the difficulties that we have right now is that in order to make those compromises you have to have strong support from your people, and the Israeli government right now is unsettled.., the Palestinians are divided between Fatah and Hamas. …And so, I think what the United States can do is help to create a greater sense of security among the Israelis, a greater sense that economic progress and increased freedom of movement is something that can be accomplished in the Palestinian territories.”

• Interview, Jerusalem Post (June 24, 2008), “I think that Israel should abide by previous agreements and commitments that have been made, and aggressive settlement construction would seem to violate the spirit at least, if not the letter, of agreements that have been made previously. Israel’s security concerns, I think, have to be taken into account, via negotiation. I think the parties in previous discussions have stated that settlement construction doesn’t necessarily contribute to that enhanced security. ...the more settlements there are, the more Israel has to invest in protecting those settlements and the more tensions arise that may undermine Israel’s long-term security.

• Statement to Arab American Candidate’s Night (October, 2008), “As President, I will make a personal commitment to work toward ending the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and realize the goal of two states living side-by-side in peace and security. This is important to Arab Americans, it’s important to American Jews, and it is important to me.”

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