07/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama In Jerusalem

JERUSALEM -- Excitement is mounting as Senator Barack Obama and his entourage approach Israel and the West Bank. This trip is much higher profile than his junket
here as a junior senator in January 2006. As America's first mixed-race candidate for the presidency, the presumptive Democratic nominee will ignite at least as much enthusiasm as France's flirtatious first lady Carla Bruni Sarkozy did last month when she hit town with her sidekick President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Already Obama's advisers are likening Obama's galvanizing effect on foreign crowds to John F Kennedy 's. The campaign rhetoric underscores this: Obama's recent promise to Afghan President Hamid Karzai to fight terror "with vigor" deliberately echoes the cold war Camelot days of Kennedy. The Shin Bet, Israel's equivalent to the FBI, have rounded up a half dozen radical Arab Israeli students who they claim had plotted to shoot down President George Bush's helicopter earlier this year, so security could not be tighter in Jerusalem, although the U.S. Secret Service detail is officially protecting the candidate. This is expressly not a state visit; Obama is a first-term senator and not yet the official Democratic nominee .

The former Democratic president Obama won't want to evoke inside Israel is Jimmy Carter, who is widely reviled for labeling Ehud Olmert's wall-eyed approach to coexistence with Palestinians as "apartheid." (Meanwhile, Carter's post-presidential diplomacy efforts are concentrated this week on hammering out a deal to free Corporal Gilad Shalit through Egyptian intermediaries. He proposes an exchange of dozens of imprisoned Hamas officials for the young Israeli Defense Forces soldier who was kidnapped near the Gaza strip two years ago.)

Obama is traveling with fellow Iraq War-bashing senators Jack Reed and Chuck Hagel, on a bipartisan congressional fact-finding delegation that may also boost his modest foreign policy and security credentials. The whirlwind tour will make a pit-stop in Jordan before arrival in Israel late Tuesday. Surrounded by a scrum of 100 American reporters, including three network news anchors, Obama is under scrutiny 24/7 and is calling on leaders and analysts to help refine his policy positions in realPolitik terms. "I'm more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking," he insists. Diplomatic pressure on Iran will be the hottest topic, along with nuclear weapons containment and counter-terrorism.

Progressive activists here worry that Obama may not take advantage of the opportunity to conduct broad grassroots outreach to American voters in Israel, even though U.S. expatriates around the world who could cast absentee ballots are estimated to number somewhere between 4 million and 8 million. In a place with at least 100,000 dual national Israeli-Americans, who live in settlements, serve in the IDF, study at universities or Yeshivas (Jewish seminaries), intern at NGOs (non-profit organizations), or retire with access to free medical treatment, there are plenty of opportunities to campaign and press the flesh.

"No, I do not view Obama's visit as unusual, particularly since he is very aware of the potential of the millions of Americans living abroad, and of their voting strength," observes Joanne Yaron, Chairperson of Democrats Abroad-Israel. "Giuliani was here while he was still a candidate and advertised in the Jerusalem Post. McCain was here recently (in March). John Edwards was here just days before he announced his candidacy and met with us in Jerusalem. Kerry did not meet with us, but his brother Cameron did in his name. I've been in Israel a long time -- nearly 40 years -- but only became active in Democrats Abroad in 2004, so I was not too involved before then.

Although Yaron's organization appears to have been left out of the loop on this outing, which was organized by two Clinton-era envoys, Democrats Abroad have been hyper-active in registering new voters for the upcoming election. During a 4th of July weekend picnic held in Jerusalem, "the volunteer staff was constantly busy -- not a moment to rest. People were lining up to register. Interest was very high and brisk," Yaron said, " and our first shift of volunteers remained to help the second shift."

A recent poll
showed that Israelis, who tend to value military experience, prefer John McCain to Barack Obama by 11 percentage points, although an overwhelming majority earlier had backed Hillary Clinton as a surer bet for Israel than McCain. Says a liberal Israeli analyst, Yossi Sari:

Official Jerusalem has gotten used to the idea that Obama will be the next American president. At first Israelis didn't think he would be able to beat Queen Hillary, and they were proven wrong, as usual...the reality will be enough to spur Prime Minister Olmert to glad-hand Obama ...The government considers McCain a friend and we've had enough of Bush's friendship, which left us stranded and was remembered only after seven years. McCain is not as obtuse as Bush or as corrupt as Cheney, but he is their successor. McCain has even removed himself from the international arena when it comes to environmental issues... Obama has a good chance of becoming not just a president, but a world leader who wants to save himself from himself. Can it not be that, for a change, what's good for the world will also be good for the Jews, and what's good for the Jews, will also be what's good for the world?

Even though Israelis are well accustomed to hybrid marriages real and metaphorical -- their eclectic communities, Sephardic, Ashkenazy, Ethiopian and Russian Jews, all mixed together -- many are confused by the hybrid messages presented by Obama, the candidate of change.
Israelis seem perplexed but not necessarily put off by the Obama Kansas/Kenyan roots planted in Hawaii, transplanted to Harvard Yard and ultimately urbanized in Southside Chicago. A fatherless atheist who transmogrifies into a born-again orator is not politics as usual here.

The Economist
recently pointed to "some disquieting signs of a tendency ... to tailor his message to whichever audience he is talking to." Obama needs wiggle-room on his free trade promises and contradictory protectionist impulses. Withdrawal plans from Iraq; and his pledge that Jerusalem must never be divided may also require tweaking as the election nears.

Violet R. Witt, a platinum blonde grandmother from Chicago who has lived 30 years in West Jerusalem, minces no words. When asked about the presidential prospects of her Illinois senator, she crinkled her nose. "Not much. Obama, Osama. Say no more. I don't really trust him."

Politically conservative Witt remained unconvinced even after Obama's rather fawning speech to the Jewish lobby AIPAC's big conference in Washington, which recounted Obama's gratitude to Jewish Americans.

Jewish and African Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder. They took buses down South together; they marched together; they bled together; and Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner were willing to die alongside a black man, James Cheney on behalf of freedom and on behalf of equality. Their legacy is our inheritance; we must not allow the relationship between Jews and African Americans to suffer," he said. He also promised "$30 billion in assistance to Israel over the next decade, investments to Israel's security that will not be tied to any other nation.

Explanations are in the offing for the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who Obama will meet on Wednesday. Care must be taken in their Ramallah photo-op not to snap a portrait of Yassir Arafat looming over Obama's left shoulder like Bin Laden's face did in that satirical New Yorker cover. And he'd best skip any jocular fist jabs.

On Wednesday, Israel's Christian Zionist tourists and thousands of resident Millennial Jews are expected to come out in force to catch a glimpse of Obama. He may forgo a planned walkabout through the alleys of Old Jerusalem because of security concerns, but Obama is almost certain to don a skull cap and visit the Western Wall where prayers are scribbled on slips of paper and hang like chads from the chinks between the ancient stones. Some apocalypse-hastening Bible-thumpers already equate the Democratic candidate with the antiChrist, so there often is a mixture of mistrust and excitement whenever Obama's name comes up. All the tedious talk radio buzz about Hussein, his Muslim middle name, his Indonesian primary school, and his severed ties to a manic hometown preacher Jeremiah Wright gets re-examined in a neo-Zionist context.

After Obama dines with Prime Minister Olmert, who is beleaguered by corruption scandals, he will meet a namesake, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as well as feisty opposition Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Then Obama will buzz over the occupied territories in a helicopter with the Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a blonde ex-Mossad agent and best friend to her American counterpart, Condoleeza RIce. They'll visit the battered Negev town of Sderot, which is within rocket range of the Gaza strip, to shake hands with the mayor and shell-shocked students. As a tenuous ceasefire is now being observed, Obama will be as safe as when he choppered into Fassouta, a Katyusha rocket-riddled Christian village on the Lebanese border, two-and-a-half years ago. The one thing that is certain is that Obama is rocketing himself into the headlines before his last lap of the tour commences in Europe.